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Abu Walaa’s Islamic State Network and Germany’s Counter-Terrorism Prosecutions

By Herbert Maack, Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 9, 07 May 2021

A German court sentenced on February 24 the alleged “Islamic State leader of Germany” to a lengthy prison sentence. The trial against Salafist preacher Ahmad Abdelaziz Abdullah Abdullah, better known as Abu Walaa, lasted three-and-a-half-years and provides insights into radicalization and Islamic State (IS) recruitment in Germany in the years from 2012 to 2016. This article’s insights on Abu Walaa and his network are based on his recent court verdict and the memoirs of “VP-01,” Germany’s top police informant, who successfully spied on Abu Walaa and his network. In addition, this article illustrates how Germany’s security authorities and justice system continue to face challenges in bringing terrorism suspects to justice.

Abu Walaa’s Network from Germany to IS in Syria and Iraq

Born in Iraq and an ethnic Kurd from Kirkuk, Abu Walaa arrived in Germany in 2000 as a refugee and originally settled with his family, including two wives and seven children, in the town of Tönisvorst in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Subsequently, Abu Walaa established himself as one of the most influential Salafists in Germany while preaching as the imam of Deutschsprachige Islamkreis mosque, which was established in 2012 in Hildesheim in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony. The mosque became a hotspot of the Salafist scene in Germany and Abu Walaa was known for his fiery sermons both at his now-banned Deutschsprachige Islamkreis mosque and online, where he was called “the preacher without a face” due to his habit of preaching with his back to the camera, leaving his features hidden from view. Abu Walaa was successful in building a strong social media following that at one point amounted to as many as 25,000 fans on Facebook and included followers from across Europe (, September 26, 2017; Deutsche Welle, December 11, 2018).

The German security authorities kept a close watch on Abu Walaa after it became clear that several jihadists who left Germany to join IS in Syria and Iraq had regularly visited his mosque before their departure. In addition, Abu Walaa’s network was linked to several terrorist plots in Germany, including the bombing of a Sikh-temple in Essen on April 16, 2016, in which three individuals were wounded. The perpetrators, Yusuf T., Mohamed B., and Tolga I., were suspected to have been radicalized by the Abu Walaa and his close associates. [1]

In the summer of 2015, the German police directed one of their key human sources, known only as “VP-01” or his undercover name, “Mustafa Cem”, to attend the mosque. “VP-01” was able to confirm to German authorities that Abu Walaa and his close associates were vetting and recruiting individuals to join IS in Syria and Iraq and that the mosque had become a key meeting point for Salafist-jihadists in Germany. [2]

On July 28, 2016, German police conducted a search of Abu Walaa’s mosque, although no arrests were made at that point. However, Abu Walaa was alarmed by the searches and became aware that he had been spied on and suspected “VP-01” of working for German security authorities. Abu Walaa posted on September 16, 2016 an audio message to his followers to denounce “VP-01” as a spy and called for his “destruction.” This forced “VP-01” to enter a witness protection program. [3] However, as a result of information provided by “VP-01”, on November 8, 2016, Abu Walaa and four other leading individuals of his network, Boban Simeonovic, Hasan Celenk and Mahmoud O, were arrested on suspicion of establishing a terrorist network to recruit fighters for IS within Germany (Generalbundesanwaltschaft Press Release, November 8, 2016).

Authorities believed that Abu Walaa had designated his associates, the German-Serbian national Boban Simeonovic and Turkish national Hasan Celenk, as his regional leaders in the cities of Dortmund and Duisburg in North-Rhine Westphalia, where they taught Arabic and ideologically prepared new recruits to join IS, including by showing them IS propaganda videos. Abu Walaa, for his part, was the final gatekeeper before they joined IS and had the authority to decide which duties were given to individuals when they joined the group. Abu Walaa was, for example, able to direct German foreign fighters to serve in the IS Intelligence units and IS medical service. The fact that Abu Walaa’s influence reached to the IS administration in Syria and Iraq demonstrated how closely connected his network was with the organization (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24).

The investigation into Abu Walaa gained even more attention six weeks after his arrest when Germany suffered its most devastating jihadist attack to date. On December 19, 2016, a Tunisian refugee, Anis Amri, rammed a truck he had hijacked into the Berlin Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens. Amri was able to flee to Italy, where he subsequently died after a firefight with the police. The investigation into his contacts in Germany led the authorities again to Abu Walaa and his network. [4]

The number of people the Abu Walaa network successfully recruited for IS remains unknown. However, it is believed that more than 20 jihadists who traveled to IS in Syria and Iraq from Germany can be traced to his network. These reportedly also include the 24-year-old twins Kevin and Mark Knop, who committed suicide bombings for IS in Iraq in 2015. [5]

Abu Walaa’s Trial

The trial against Abu Walaa and his associates began in 2017. Prosecutors sought sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to 11-and-a-half-years in prison for the men. Key to the prosecution was not only information provided by “VP-01,” but also the testimony of Anil O., who was one of the individuals Abu Walaa recruited and sent to IS. Anil O. and his wife had left Germany in the summer of 2015 and, with the support of Abu Walaa’s network, successfully traveled via Turkey to IS-controlled territory in Syria. However, after only spending a few months in IS territory, Anil O. and his wife attempted to return to Turkey because they realized the “true nature” of IS and allegedly also after he had been offered a 10-year-old sex-slave. [6]

Their escape attempt failed and IS imprisoned Anil O. in Raqqa. However, Abu Walaa intervened on Anil O.’s behalf and he was freed. Another escape attempt in early 2016 succeeded and Anil O. and his wife were able to cross back to Turkey, where Anil O. entered a plea-bargaining deal with German authorities and agreed to testify against Abu Walaa and his network in exchange for a lighter sentence. He testified that Abu Walaa had been the “number one IS leader in Germany” and provided details on the Abu Walaa network’s internal workings (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24). [7]

After a lengthy process lasting 243 days that included more than 120 witnesses and expert hearings, the Oberlandesgericht Celle, which in Germany’s federal system is the province (state)-level Higher Regional Court, sentenced Abu Walaa to a ten-and-a-half-year prison term. His associates were also found guilty and sentenced, including Boban Simeonovic for eight years, Hassan Celenk for six-and-a-half-years, and Mahmoud O. for four years (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24).

Germany’s Criminal Justice System and Terrorism Trends

The court trial of Abu Walaa and his network has shown that Germany’s justice system is able to successfully prosecute complex terrorism cases. However, criticism has been voiced about the fact that it took German security authorities too long for the leaders of Abu Walaa’s network to be arrested because police had to rely on an IS defector to get the necessary proof for arrest warrants. In addition, the court process lasted more than three years before a verdict was reached, and cost German taxpayers around 10 million euros (, November 8, 2020).

While the threat from far-right terrorism has gained significant attention in Germany, jihadist terrorism continues to present a threat to the country as well. Underlining the transnational nature of the jihadist threat, in February 2021, security authorities in Germany and Denmark arrested three Syrian brothers, aged 33, 36 and 40, on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. In subsequent searches in Denmark and Germany, police officers found chemicals suitable for building explosives and a picture of an IS flag on one suspect’s mobile phone. However, the potential target of the bomb plot remains unclear (Tagesschau, February 11).

Even after the conclusion of the Abu Walaa network trials, the German justice system continues to face a significant caseload of terrorism offences. Alone in the first three months of 2021, the German state prosecutor opened criminal investigations and prosecutions for nine separate terrorism offences, ranging from membership in a foreign terrorist group, including IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Tabka and Jund al-Sham, to terrorism financing and attack plotting. [8] German authorities have assessed that in total over 1,070 individuals left Germany and travelled to Syria and Iraq in IS’s heyday. However, only for approximately half of these cases do German authorities have actual proof that individuals joined a terrorist group or at least provided support to one (Deutsche Welle, July 27, 2020). Moreover, at least 450 Germans are still abroad and continue to represent a potential counter-terrorism risk for Germany and a legal challenge for the German justice system if they are arrested.


[1] Diehl. Jörg, Lehberger, Roman, Schmid, Fidelius: Undercover. Ein V-Mann packt aus. DVA Spiegel Buchverlag, May 2020. The Book is based on interviews with “VP-01” (also uses the pseudonym “Mustafa Cem”) and his career as a police informant.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For more on Amri’s relationship with the Abu Walaa network, see George Heil, CTC Sentinel February 2017:

[5] Ibid.

[6] Diehl. Jörg, Lehberger, Roman, Schmid, Fidelius: Undercover. Ein V-Mann packt aus. DVA Spiegel Buchverlag, May 2020. The Book is based on interviews with “VP-01” (also uses the pseudonym “Mustafa Cem”) and his career as a police informant.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See, for example:


Why Europe should stop worrying about 'sportswashing'

By Damien Phillips, First published by EUobserver, 06 May 2021

LONDON - The recent furore in the UK over whether prime minister Boris Johnson intervened in Saudi Arabia's failed bid to buy Newcastle United and the indignance of La Liga's chief Javier Tebas, in the controversy over United Arab Emirates-owned Manchester City and its alleged Financial Fair Play breaches, are just the latest instalments in the never-ending debate over 'sportswashing'.

Authoritarian regimes using prestigious sponsorship and the hosting of events in various sports to distract from their human rights records, or other malign actions, has been going on for decades and has generated thousands of headlines and much hysteria across Europe.

This would be justified if the practice actually worked.

Credited to the 2015 Azerbaijani 'Sports for Rights' campaign, the term is now in vogue as the catch-all for governments looking to boost their international prestige through the unifying power of sport.

Examples stretch right back to the 1935 European Rowing Championships in Nazi Germany, and are as diverse as the 1958 Basque Pelota World Championships and the Bahrain Grand Prix.

New instances crop up all the time.

In March, Saudi Arabia was accused of spending $1.5bn on international sporting events to "obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder", with its aborted $400m takeover of Newcastle United and a $145m deal with the Spanish Football Association in the spotlight.

And yet nothing has been 'washed' at all.

The 'Streisand' Effect

If anything, Saudi Arabia's patronage has attracted more attention to its poor human rights record and ruthless foreign policy than ever before. The Kingdom is never far from the headlines for its crackdown on dissent, the arrest of feminist activists and religious clerics, and its use of air strikes in the war in Yemen which some observers allege have led to the deaths of 8,000 civilians.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is effectively the owner of Manchester City and the UAE has poured millions into the club as part of a worldwide PR blitzkrieg to shore up the country's false image as the Middle East's most progressive state.

Sheikh Mansour, working under the auspices of the UAE's leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has embarked on a worldwide football club buying spree, everywhere from Melbourne to New York.

But where has it got them?

The UAE's international reputation is steadily being shredded by its own leadership in moves so blatant that no amount of sporting spin can hide them.

The country has been helping to keep the savage Maduro regime in power in Venezuela by assisting its sales of gold and crude oil, defying US sanctions against a dictatorship which has reportedly butchered 9,000 of its own citizens in 18 months for "resistance to authority".

The US Defence Department's inspector general released a report late last year that showed the US government was well aware that the UAE had been financially aiding the Wagner Group in Libya.

This mercenary force is widely seen as a proxy for Russian premier Vladimir Putin, fighting on behalf of warlords in Libya seeking to overthrow the rightful Tripoli government, who are supported by the EU and the UN.

That such covert support for the West's authoritarian enemies has been so widely-publicised and is freely-known shows how little sportswashing can hide.

No European journalist who has eyes in their head has been hoodwinked into believing either Saudi Arabia or the UAE don't have major issues that they must address simply because they're a prominent sporting patron. By owning clubs in European nations, both nations have brought these issues to the fore and made them tangible to a much broader audience than if they had remained as faraway countries with little impact for the average European citizen.

This capacity for sportswashing to backfire has been seen time and again.

Who can forget Russia's hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014? No doubt Vladimir Putin's regime was hoping for a reputational boost, but the games ended in a PR disaster whose fallout lasted for years.

Global coverage of its parlous, crumbling and unhygienic facilities, boycotts over human rights abuses, protests over Russia's "gay propaganda" laws, and a gigantic Russian state-sponsored doping scandal that saw it become a world leader in cheating, firmly reinforced the Russian government's reputation for both brutality and incompetence.

No doubt the moral panic over sportswashing will arise again in the lead up to next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing as China seeks to rehabilitate its sullied stature in the wake of its cover-up of coronavirus and its ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur Muslims.

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, China will discover that sportswashing never works.

As the world drowns in the inevitable coverage of China's failings, turbo-charged by the games themselves, perhaps all these countries will realise that no amount of washing can remove stains that can only be erased through substantive and meaningful change.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

The global dominance of European football is a cultural asset contributing to Europe's 'soft power' by cultivating an international fanbase for top clubs. But European values of free speech get lost in pursuit of pleasing autocratic regimes gatekeeping their markets.



Conservatives' Covid-strategy wins in lockdown-fatigue Madrid

By Elena Sánchez Nicolás, first published by 6 May 2021

BRUSSELS - Madrid's conservative leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a fierce critic of Covid-19 lockdowns, secured a major victory in Tuesday's regional election for Spain's capital city - an outcome likely to reshape the country's volatile political landscape.

The Popular Party's (PP) candidate took 65 seats in the 136-seat regional assembly - doubling its result from the previous 2019 election and consolidating her party's powerful position in the capital, where PP has governed for the last 26 years.

However, failing to secure an absolute majority of 69 seats means Ayuso will need the abstention of far-right Vox to form a new government. Vox's leader Santiago Abascal already confirmed that their 13 seats "will be at the disposition of Ayuso to facilitate her investiture".

The two parties together muster 77 deputies, while the leftist bloc could only secure 58 seats between them.

The socialist party (PSOE) of prime minister Pedro Sánchez crashed from 37 seats to 24, registering its worst result ever in Madrid regional elections, while its coalition partner, Unidas Podemos (United We Can), won only 10 seats - prompting his leader and founder Pablo Iglesias to leave Spanish politics.

For its part, the pro-environment and urban Más Madrid party drew level with the socialists, in a historic reversal in the left-wing bloc of the region - securing 24 seats. This relatively new party, formed by Podemos exiles, actually received the second-most votes.

Meanwhile, the centre-right Ciudadanos party (Citizens) disappeared from the political spectrum in Madrid, losing its 26 deputies as its lead candidate Edmundo Bal did not reach the minimum threshold of five percent of support.

Tuesday's election registered a record turnout, influenced by the highly-polarised campaign.


Ayuso has become a political phenomenon mainly because of her success in keeping Madrid open during the worst moments of the pandemic, defying the central government and even regional health experts by keeping bars, restaurants, museums and concert halls open.

Her popularity soared - especially among the hospitality sector, where businesses have come up with menus and even a beer named after her.

However, critics accuse Ayuso of neglecting health and social care services - while only protecting businesses.

According to Miguel Otero, policy analyst for Spanish think tank Elcano Royal Institute, "Ayuso has achieved with her 'Sweden-in-the-South' strategy to get support from many groups that believe their jobs and/or businesses have been saved thanks to that".

Exploiting lockdown fatigue and a year-long battle against the coronavirus, her campaign motto made voters choose between "Freedom" and "Socialism" or "Communism," referring to her left-wing rivals.

However, the Spanish capital, home to nearly seven million people, has seen more than 19 percent of the country's 3.5 million infections and a national confirmed death toll of over 78,000.

Currently, the infection rate stands at 498, well beyond the national average of 214 infections per 100,000 people over a two-weeks period.

'Ready for 2023'

Many consider that the outcome of Madrid's regional election will reshape the national political landscape, while analysts called for caution when using these results as a proxy for the rest of Spain.

"The "libertarian" (for many Trumpian) discourse of Ayuso moves the PP again away from the centre and this benefits Sanchez overall," Otero wrote on Twitter.

However, the regional leader vowed on Wednesday (5 May) to remain a "counter-power" to the left-wing coalition led by prime minister Sánchez, arguing that her victory "is going to be a stimulus and a change of cycle".

"We will continue here being the counterweight and the counter-power that are needed [against Sánchez]," she told Spanish station EsRadio.

That idea was echoed by national PP leader Pablo Casado, who said Ayuso's resounding victory in Madrid signalled that "things are changing" in Spain. "When Sánchez calls elections, we will win," he said.

Fellow PP lawmaker Pablo Montesinos also said Ayuso's success marks "the beginning of the end" for Sanchez's government.

The PP governed Spain under prime minister Mariano Rajoy between 2011 and mid-2018, when the Socialist Party called a confidence vote and took over with a minority government.

Following two inconclusive elections, Sanchez formed a minority coalition government with Unidas Podemos in January 2020.

The next general election is set for late 2023.

Portugal is going through its worst moment since the beginning of the pandemic, but experts have said that the new surge of cases will only peak in mid-February - increasing concerns over the potential collapse of the country's health system.


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The board of trustees of a high-priced literary award from the United Arab Emirates expressed regret on Monday that prominent German philosopher Juergen Habermas had turned down the prize, reversing his earlier decision.

The 91-year-old German, considered his country’s most eminent contemporary philosopher, announced earlier this week that he would not accept the Sheikh Zayed Book Award over its ties “with the existing political system” in the UAE, a hereditarily ruled country long criticized for its suppression of dissent. While describing itself as an “independent” initiative, the prize is administered by Abu Dhabi culture and tourism authorities.

Habermas’ influential writings on human rights, morality and democracy, among other topics, have stirred debate in Germany and beyond.

On its website, the board of the literary award, among the most well-funded in the region, said it “expresses regret” for Habermas’ decision “but respects it.”

The prize, it added, “embodies the values of tolerance, knowledge and creativity while building bridges between cultures, and will continue to fulfill this mission.”

The award had named Habermas the Cultural Personality of the Year, a distinction that carries a cash prize of 1 million dirhams (over $272,000). Winners of other categories receive 750,000 UAE dirhams ($204,200) each.

The award is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE when the federation of seven sheikhdoms became a country in 1971.



Lebanon: Their Suicide Pact

By Michael Young, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East, 12 May 2021

Gebran Bassil and Saad al-Hariri have existential political fears, but their stubbornness could undermine their ambitions.

Lebanon’s destruction by its political leadership continues as the country’s cabinet-formation process, already eight months old, has reached a dead end. At the heart of the deadlock is a paradox involving two major protagonists—Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son in law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and Saad al-Hariri, the prime minister-designate.

Last week France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, visited Beirut and informed Lebanese politicians that, henceforth, they were on their own. Because the French initiative proposed in September by President Emmanuel Macron to revive Lebanon’s economy had failed (a word Le Drian pointedly avoided using), the country’s political leadership had to face the consequences. There was something almost quaint in such a warning, since one thing that Lebanese leaders have never done is face the consequences of their worst actions.

What we are witnessing today is the rivalry of two individuals who are frightened that they may soon face political elimination. Hariri and Bassil are the ones with existential fears, while Aoun, an aging and inanimate president who has betrayed his constitutional role as the embodiment of national unity, has allowed their ruinous battle to continue. But what is paradoxical is that Bassil and Hariri, by pursuing their feud and making the formation of a cabinet all but impossible, are only helping to guarantee their own political demise.

Hariri’s main problem is that Saudi Arabia does not seem to support his return as prime minister, forcing him to harden his approach to a new cabinet and prove that he truly merits Riyadh’s backing. Recently, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper—rarely objective, but often accurate on things involving Hariri—quoted an Arab official who visited Saudi Arabia as saying that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told him, “We have no confidence in Saad Hariri as prime minister; the person who would reassure us and the Americans is Nawaf Salam,” Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now a judge in the International Court of Justice.

There have also been reports in Beirut that the Saudis made their sour view of the prime minister-designate clear to the Iranians in their ongoing dialogue in Iraq. Nothing in recent weeks indicates that Saudi attitudes have been misrepresented, quite the contrary. Even the marked change in France’s attitude toward Hariri lately suggests that it has abandoned the prime minister-designate. It could be that Macron, sensing that Lebanon may soon be defined by Saudi-Iranian understandings over the country and realizing that the Saudis won’t back Hariri, has opted to drop him in favor of someone else.

Knowing all this, Hariri has stuck to his demands on the government—no blocking power for any of the parties in it, since whoever controls more than a third of ministers can effectively impose the cabinet agenda; and no handing of the Interior and Justice Ministries to Bassil and Aoun, as they have demanded. Hariri realizes that unless he gets his conditions, he will be unable to manage his government. Such an outcome would only increase Saudi dissatisfaction with him, confirming that they were right in not wanting him as prime minister.

However, Hariri’s stubbornness also makes a cabinet more unlikely, only exacerbating his situation. If he fails to become prime minister, he will have unintentionally satisfied Saudi wishes and shown himself to be incapable of outmaneuvering Bassil and Aoun. That would accelerate his descent into political irrelevance and prevent him from being the savior he suggested he could be when he first announced his candidacy for the prime minister’s position last October.

Bassil would gloat if Hariri failed to form a government, but he is actually in no better a position than the prime minister-designate. For him, the minimal conditions he would accept on the cabinet is for the ministers he names to enjoy blocking power, allowing him to define the agenda and thwart whatever decisions threaten his interests. Bassil, perhaps rightly, senses that without such power, Hariri and his cabinet allies would try to sideline both him and Aoun.

Bassil’s absolute priority is to succeed Aoun as president. That is why being in control of the Interior Ministry would allow his prospective appointee to fiddle with the voting results if required and ensure that Bassil’s candidates win in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Unless he enjoys credible representation in parliament, Bassil’s chances of becoming president would be greatly damaged. As for the Justice Ministry, Bassil hopes to open corruption cases against other politicians, which would allow him to portray himself as an anti-corruption crusader. This would be supremely ironical in that many Lebanese believe that he personifies graft and sleaze.

But there too Bassil has to face reality. If he continues to hold tightly to his conditions, no government will be formed and what happens then? Bassil will be unable to shape events in the coming year before Aoun’s departure in October 2022. How, then, would he be able to pave the way for his presidency? Worse, Bassil has been sanctioned by the United States, is opposed by much of the political class, and as things stand today has a limited chance of being elected. So, as with Hariri, his obstinacy may undermine the very goals he seeks to attain.

Bassil’s only way out of this dilemma is to try to force Hariri to abandon the task of forming a cabinet. He seems to think that he can bring in a more pliable replacement, one amenable to his and Aoun’s conditions. The only problem is that such an expectation is ridiculous. Hariri may not enjoy the blessings of Mohammed bin Salman, but Lebanese Sunnis are solidly behind him in rejecting Bassil’s and Aoun’s brinkmanship. Indeed, if Hariri were to withdraw, Sunni parliamentarians could refuse to engage in consultations with Aoun to designate a new prime minister. The absence of communal legitimacy could deter credible Sunnis from taking Hariri’s place.

There are also reports that the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, will oppose Aoun’s and Bassil’s efforts to bring in a cabinet they favor. Berri may have leaked a story of how he had informed Hezbollah that he would join Hariri, the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, and the Maronite politician Suleiman Franjieh in boycotting parliament to block this. Such a step would prevent a legislative quorum necessary for a confidence vote in any new government.

It has been a year and a half that the Lebanese currency collapsed, provoking widespread poverty in a country with only a rudimentary social safety net. In that time the political leadership has done nothing to improve the situation, while squabbling incessantly. To force the Lebanese to pay a heavy price for the political ambitions and insecurities of Hariri and Bassil is inadmissible. The good news is that both may be committing political suicide by holding everything up. The bad news is that suicides should never take so long.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


The old Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is Dead—Long Live the Emerging Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Nathan J. Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 05 May 2021

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become deeply ingrained in daily life. Work must begin now to heal deep-seated divisions, which are not likely to be resolved in a burst of diplomacy.


It is time to admit what most observers already know: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that diplomats have been dealing with for half a century is over. It is not that a solution has been found. Just the opposite: all the injustices and insecurities that afflict inhabitants of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are now so deeply ingrained in daily life that no diplomatic framework can address them now. This leaves some people far better off than others, of course—and it leaves many quite satisfied. But even the smug have cause for worry—less about their own lives and livelihood and more about the world to be inhabited by their children and grandchildren. And many others are left stateless, restricted in movement, harshly policed, and pondering how to provide for their family’s needs now rather than for future generations.
Taking a Better Look at Some Bad History

It no longer makes sense to talk about a “peace process” as though it might be fruitful to gather Israeli and Palestinian leaders one more time at Camp David or Taba. Instead, it is more useful to understand that the deep social and political divisions among the people of the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have metastasized into intractable troubles akin to those of other times and places: the American South as the era of Reconstruction faded and Jim Crow laws were gradually imposed; the Indian subcontinent as the British Empire emerged too weak from World War II to sustain itself, giving way to violent conflicts and some outcomes that remain contentious today; and South Africa in the first half of the twentieth century with its racialized and ethnic divisions very deeply entrenched in law and practice but not yet formally systematized as apartheid.

Is this really the conclusion that most observers have come to? No, it is not a conclusion; instead, it is actually a starting point for most discussions—among Israelis and Palestinians, of course, who live these realities. But increasingly, scholars, analysts, and diplomats also frankly acknowledge the conflict’s transformation, at least behind closed doors. The extent of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is frequently cited as the reason for this change, and indeed, government-sponsored population movements contributed in an essential manner. But the one-state outcome has broad roots in the networks of internal and external control within the territory, the security regime, and the systems of laws and institutions that work in varying ways for different categories of inhabitants. Some of the practices are so deeply entrenched that they seem to be part of the natural landscape rather than political outcomes based on the accretion of decisions and policies, many of which are older than the people they govern.

There are understandable reasons for experts’ reticence to acknowledge that transformation openly. First, if the old diplomacy is dead, what is to be done? And second, does describing a situation as intractable mean accepting it and turning to problems that are more amenable to available diplomatic tools? Today, privileging the second objection has made it impossible to confront the first. It may be time to stop whistling past the graveyard of diplomacy.

Narrowly Averting a 1948 Moment

Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration was happy to embrace the conflict’s transformation—and implicitly treat it as a virtue. Trump administration officials flirted with Israeli annexation of the West Bank (encouraging it in practice but stopping short of endorsing formal annexation), dismissed the Palestinian leadership as irrelevant, embraced Israeli settlements, avoided any mention of Palestinian national identity, and even attempted to render international law on the subject illegal. They treated the absence of a negotiated solution as something to perpetuate, not overcome.

Under Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the situation seemed to be nearing a “1948 moment”—referring not to the end of the British Mandate in Palestine but to the victory of the National Party in South Africa and its adoption of apartheid as an ideology and policy—one designed to systematize, deepen, and render into a comprehensive legal form the unequal arrangements that had arisen over time. While Israel drew back from any full formal move, the term “apartheid” is used increasingly seriously as a description for what had only been called occupation.

Back to a More Realistic Future? Or Not?

The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has adopted a different stance. Incoming officials openly acknowledge part of the closed-door consensus: a two-state solution is not just one summit away. But they advocate a long-term goal of moving things back in that direction. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the general approach the day before Biden took office: “The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution. . . . [I]t’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that. What would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult process even more challenging.”

While the Biden approach seems like the only practical one to hardened veterans still hoping for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, it has two significant flaws: it is illegal and impossible. And that is not all; even if it were executed, over the long term it would deliver the precise opposite of what it promises.

The policy’s illegality lies in large part in U.S. legislation written over two generations. Congress has been loquacious and detailed in laying out its objections to aspects of a Palestinian state. Its laws instruct U.S. officials on how to manage terrorism, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the place of international organizations, international assistance, the Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, international law, and Hamas. This effectively gives a protective envelope for certain policies and measures, many of them encoded in Israeli legal practices too, while insulating them from international law.

To be sure, some legal obstacles can be circumvented; indeed, that process has already begun. But doing so is routing the Biden team through a labyrinthine world of prohibitions, loopholes, dead ends, waivers, and workarounds. Administration officials may spend more time negotiating with Capitol Hill than with Israelis or Palestinians. The experts who could find their way in the legal thicket would probably fit on a single Zoom screen (if they could be induced to speak to each other at all). Much of this legal effort aimed not only to close diplomatic doors in Palestinians’ faces but also to hamstring U.S. officials. It is working.

The politics is what makes the two-state solution impossible. The domestic environments in Israel, Palestine, and the United States mean moving forward on one element of the approach of reviving the two-state solution will not be possible without tripping on another.

A prospective Israeli leader who really wished to revive rather than undermine a two-state approach would sound to most potential voters as a naïve anachronism at best. Palestinian domestic politics poses its own challenges; the current leadership is weak in part because it is seen as pointlessly striving to jump through every hoop the United States holds up, sullenly ignoring the fact that the current hoop was raised precisely when it prepared to hop through the last one. It is unthinkable that the Biden administration would spend political capital fending off its own domestic adversaries by trying to change the Israeli calculus or drop some U.S. legislative or diplomatic hoops for Palestinians.

It is not merely domestic politics that is a problem for two-state diplomacy. Regional winds have also shifted away from encouraging two-state diplomacy to rendering it irrelevant. A generation ago, some Israeli leaders feared that unrest among Palestinians might ignite a new round of conflict with regional states. The prospect of conflict with an increasingly assertive Iran taking up the Palestinian cause, for example, proved a major impetus to an Israeli effort in the 1990s to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian national movement as represented by the PLO. The subsequent Oslo Accord agreements gave Jordan the political space to sign a peace treaty with Israel and other states to establish ties of various sorts, whereas in 2020, ties with other Arab states (the Abraham Accords) have progressed with their leaders giving only the most routine and sometimes even vacuous statements of support for the two-state solution or Saudi Arabia’s 2002 Arab Peace initiative. Nor does one hear many Israelis arguing any more that the best way to manage any Iranian challenge is peace with the Palestinians.

These are the realities the Biden team will wrestle with. Practical people pursuing what they see as the only practical path will find something practical to do—and that means coloring within the lines imposed by law and politics without having much salutary long-term effect. Some mechanism will be devised that inefficiently takes advantage of legal gaps to funnel assistance in a manner that obtains Israeli acquiescence and only mildly humiliates Palestinian leaders. Tremendous and sustained diplomatic energy may obtain important improvements—but only in such niche areas as Palestinian cellular telephone networks. Some formal diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be set up that does not undercut the status of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, avoids the unspeakable term “State of Palestine,” and complies with the necessary strictures about who diplomats can speak with and how. Perhaps new congressional initiatives, such as those related to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, will be fended off or watered down. But it is difficult to make any serious argument that these steps are milestones along the road to a two-state solution.

When in a Hole, Dig Deeper

And this leads to the real problem. The Biden team’s downgrading of a short-term focus on conflict-ending diplomacy in favor of fostering salutary long-term trends is a laudable shift—but tying the approach to the corpse of the two-state solution and focusing on superficial palliatives will dig the existing hole deeper. Efforts to manage the current situation will involve meeting all sorts of absurd conditions dictated by legal and political constraints with admirable ingenuity, but the Biden administration’s bandwidth for the problem will be narrow. And no wonder: nobody really believes that such steps can advance the two-state solution.

To refer to the solution as a corpse may seem too strong. There may indeed by a possible path to a two-state solution, but U.S. officials treat it as even more unspeakable in public than the death of the peace process. Were the United States to recognize the state of Palestine; support international diplomacy on the application of the Geneva Conventions to the occupied Palestinian territories (a geographic term no current United States official is permitted to use); take firm action to hold accountable those acting in violation; offer to support negotiations between any leaders of Israel and Palestine willing to accept all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions; and condition all economic, diplomatic, and security cooperation with both states to a commitment to those resolutions and to disarming any groups undermining them—well, then it is possible to imagine a revival of two-state diplomacy. But currently, U.S. officials, as much as they tighten their grip on the slogan of the two-state solution, do not merely fail to take such positions; they actively denounce and prevent them, chiefly by obstructing international diplomacy.

The developments that killed the two-state solution—walls, cities, and laws; deep shifts in Israeli domestic politics; the Palestinian political schism and weakness; and profound mistrust—are largely unaddressed under the emerging approach. The United States has long fallen into a pattern of picking an occasional battle while it has lost the war against Israeli annexation. The oft-intoned (though fairly recent) claim by many within the United States foreign policy community that “the two-state solution is the only viable option” is now deployed to invoke a mythical—and likely unattainable—future in order to avoid acknowledging the current one-state reality.

Assessing Policy Ideas

When I first wrote that “The Peace Process Has No Clothes” a decade and a half ago, I was reluctantly entering a room of skeptics bereft of any mainstream policy actors. But now, with honest words increasingly seeping into public discussion, is there any way to avoid despair in policy circles?

There are constructive steps that outside actors can take, but in order to explore them, it is necessary to stop asking “Will this revive the peace process?” and instead ask two new questions about prospective steps. First, “Does this step help ameliorate suffering today or decrease violence today?” And second, “Will this step foster development of institutions and practices that are likely to make a more systematic solution possible at a much later time?”

A number of policies would provide positive answers to these questions. But it will be necessary to be bold. It is not hard to think of ways to clear goods through Gaza’s borders a bit more quickly or promote technology education in Palestinian schools. Such initiatives would be worthwhile—but far more significant would be an economic opening of Gaza or greater political and economic rights for the enormous number of stateless refugees.

Less dramatically, I have argued elsewhere that the generous international assistance programs for Palestinians should be repurposed: they will not aid in producing a two-state solution in the short term, but they can greatly aid in shoring up the resilience of Palestinian society and institutions both at the national and local level, if designed properly.

To address the second question, possible initiatives would be greater international recognition for the State of Palestine—an uncertain entity to be sure, but it is the best starting point for finding an effective and authoritative voice for the Palestinian national community. People-to-people diplomacy, as it has been understood, has led to thoughtful analyses but has lost credibility among most Israelis and become suspect in the eyes of most Palestinians (because deploying postconflict techniques in this way obscures the power imbalances and sources of conflict). More helpful are genuine attempts to listen to broader sets of voices in both societies (but especially the Palestinian one, only because their debates have been less audible in international policy circles)—far broader than the familiar but narrow group of negotiators or public figures generally heard. In that respect, a recent RAND report based on discussions of alternative futures with Israeli and Palestinian focus groups is a welcome step in bringing real debates to the attention of the policy community. A new generation of polling—that goes beyond past questioning on the “peace process” and treats the area as a single entity with a deeply divided population—is also extremely helpful for informing policy analysis.

Beginning a Journey of a Thousand Miles

Most of these proposals would be seen in policy circles in Washington (and perhaps in Europe as well) as both unrealistic and pro-Palestinian, but those are not the most significant problems. They are certainly unrealistic in terms of current U.S. policy discussions, but those discussions have become so divorced from the region’s political realities that it hardly seems a meaningful criticism. And with the status quo so deeply troubling for Palestinians, it is not surprising that efforts to steer things in a different direction might seem to work in their favour.

U.S. policy discussions have become divorced from the region’s political realities

But the real problem with this set of ideas is that each element can pull in a different direction. Any attempt to ameliorate current conditions can provoke suspicions that it will—in effect, perhaps even in intent—become a way of entrenching the present and avoiding any long-term solution. Several generations of Palestinian refugees have lived this dilemma very poignantly.

But there are some paths that can be both ameliorative and conducive to the emergence of long-term alternatives. Talk among Palestinians about shifting to a “rights-based approach”—one that focuses less on statehood and more on securing individual and collective rights regardless of the governing political framework—has grown stronger as the dream of Palestinian statehood has receded. Such talk should be taken seriously by international actors.

The effect would not be to render the conflict soluble but to change the strategic calculus of leaders: to persuade Israelis that there are costs to the one-state reality and to offer Palestinians a path between despair and what they have come to call “armed struggle.”

A good first step would be for the United States to end its conscious and consistent policy for half a century to carve out Palestine as a place where even citing relevant international legal instruments (some of them fostered by United States diplomacy) is provocative. After several decades of attempts, it has become improbable that ripping diplomacy out of any legal framework in a situation of gross power imbalance will lead to a successful outcome.

If introducing talk of rights and law is viewed as partisan, radical, or unrealistic, that may be an indication of how deeply intractable a conflict has become. It is time to take a much longer-range perspective. Deep-seated divisions are not likely to be resolved in a burst of diplomacy or even in a decade of hard work. All the more reason to start now.
End of document


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


Jordan/Syria: Sailors Without a Sea

By Armenak Tokmajyan and Laith Qerbaa, The Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 26 April 2021

Jordan’s bahhara have suffered from a closed border with Syria, but efforts to resume informal trade ties continue.


In the past decade, the war in Syria has reshaped not only the country’s own border peripheries, but also those of its neighbors. In few places has the impact been more painfully felt than in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha, located only 10 kilometers away from the southern Syrian city of Daraa.

Before 2011, Daraa and Ramtha were tied together through trade relations. Daraa supplies goods to Ramtha, which in turn became a hub for the sale of Syrian products in northern Jordan. A decade on the two cities have different stories to tell. Deraa has seen the Syrian war suck all economic life out of the city, while the closed or only partially reopened border with Syria has helped to impoverish Ramtha, which relies heavily on cross-border trade.

Active in the cross-border trade were Jordanian drivers who worked the route between Ramtha and Deraa. These drivers, known as bahhara, or “sailors” in Arabic, embodied the vulnerability of border communities as well as the resilience of cross-border relations. Being a bahhar is a culture unto itself, a profession that involves techniques and attitudes passed on from father to son. These include courage, sharp-wittedness, and a native ability to navigate through border crossings and deal with the border authorities.

The cross-border business of the bahhara was built on the different market, labor, and production conditions in Syria and Jordan. Most goods were cheaper in Syria and in high demand in Jordan. This provided the drivers with an ideal opportunity to profit by buying products in Syria and reselling them in Jordan.

On a normal day, a trip to Daraa and back took a few hours. Soon after passing the Ramtha-Daraa crossing, Jordanian drivers found themselves shopping in Daraa’s numerous rest stations (istirahat), which offered many goods sought by Jordanians. While the bahhara rarely ventured deeper inside Syria, goods did travel from Syria’s interior to Daraa before being transported into Jordan.

As one Jordanian trader explained, “[Before 2011] I used to go to Aleppo to buy goods. After making my selection, I would tell the producer to ship them to Daraa’s rest stations.” In essence, Daraa was not just a market, but a “port” for export to Jordan thanks to the “sailors.” Why ship directly from Aleppo to Jordan when delegating the job to the bahhara meant faster door-to-door service, and most importantly provided a cheaper option?

According to official Jordanian data, just before 2011 there were some 800 cars licensed to work on the Syria route, most of them from Ramtha. They drove legally registered cars but their business was not entirely legal. On paper, their job was to transport passengers from different Jordanian cities to Syria, which they often did. But the real profit was in transporting Syrian goods on their way back. Some played it safe and transported small amounts—sweets, cigarettes, or cleaning agents—toward which the authorities turned a blind eye.

This petty trade became more lucrative when drivers brought in more than the tolerated amounts while paying low or no customs duties. This practice created a major informal economy before 2011. Although it cost the state in import revenues, it was tolerated because it generated economic activity in Ramtha. The bahhara took pride in earning income without relying on Jordan’s bloated public sector, while also bringing cheap goods to the market. Moreover, they made Ramtha a hub for redistributing Syrian goods throughout Jordan. Azraq, a small town near the Jordanian-Saudi border, was one such destination. The rest stations in the town offered Syrian cheese and sweets, among other goods, to those traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Decades of cross-border trade created strong commercial relations that sometimes turned into friendships and were even inherited by young bahhara. Despite the war and destruction of Daraa and closed or restricted Syrian-Jordanian borders, these relations remained resilient and allowed drivers to cope with new circumstances. For example, after traveling to Daraa became risky for the bahhara in 2011, Syrian traders would bring the requested goods into a restricted area within the customs’ premises. In that way, Jordanian drivers could pick up their goods without having to venture into Daraa.

However, resilience and creativity also had its limits. In 2013, it became very difficult, if not impossible, for Jordanians to cross into Syria, beginning a five-year interruption until the border was reopened in late 2018. In the meantime, southern Syria, especially Daraa Governorate, faced considerable physical, economic, and social destruction, as well as the displacement of capital and human resources. Syria was no longer the same place. Nonetheless, when the borders reopened—only the Nassib-Jaber crossing, as the Daraa-Ramtha crossing remained closed—trade resumed and old relations were even revived. One driver noted that “Daraa [city’s] rest stations had moved to Nassib [city]. Yet the first traders who welcomed us there in 2018 were from Daraa. We could even take goods with credit, as in the old days. Over time we made new contacts.”

If some of the old relationships survived, the business environment had radically changed. Goods still came from different parts of Syria, though the quantities were smaller and the delays longer. Entering Syria was not that difficult, coming back, however, became increasingly nightmarish. The Syrian customs were characterized by the absence of the state, as one bahhar put it. This meant that corruption and near lawlessness were rampant, as the crossing was one of the few economically active places in Syria allowing pro-regime militias to make money. As one bahhar described the new situation, “Before [2011] we gave custom officials a tip. Now those controlling the crossing want a share of our income.”

On the Jordanian side, matters were smooth at first, although the Jordanian authorities increasingly took tougher measures. Intentionally or not, this made the bahhara’s trade hardly profitable. Jordan was pressured by the United States not to facilitate trade relations with Syria. The kingdom also faced security challenges such as drug and weapons smuggling, while the customs service was working at a lower capacity. All this forced Jordan to alter its border policies, thereby creating more obstacles for the bahhara.

The consequence of these developments was that economic activity again dried up in Ramtha, eventually leading to unprecedented social unrest in August 2019, less than one year after the reopening of the Nassib crossing. The coronavirus crisis that hit the region in March 2020 compelled Jordan to close the border again, without popular objection. Ever since, the bahhara, and by extension the people of Ramtha, have waited impatiently for the day the border will reopen.

Today, Ramtha’s sailors find themselves without a sea. Yet their story shows how when given the slightest opportunity they are capable of reigniting old ties, creating new ones, and capitalizing on the market differences between Syria and Jordan.


Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


Lebanon: Why Beirut Beckons

By Michael Young, Malcolm H. Kerr, Carnegie Middle East Center, 27 April 2021

Might the Arab states hand Lebanon over to Syria as compensation for distancing itself from Iran?


Is there a way that major Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other Arab states, can restore some of their influence in Lebanon? The question may seem peculiar at a time when the Saudis seem to have given up on the country, regarding it as being solidly held by Iran and its local proxy Hezbollah.

If the Saudis and Emiratis seek to limit Iran’s sway in the region, then simply abandoning Lebanon doesn’t represent a strategy. Nor does it mean taking advantage of regional changes to try to contain Iran’s reach. The mechanisms of Hezbollah’s control are slowly eroding in Lebanon. The party had advanced its local agenda through the Lebanese state and a political class that saw any confrontation with Hezbollah as an invitation to civil conflict and, therefore, a threat to its own existence. Yet today the state is decomposing, the rifts in the country’s political leadership appear to be irreconcilable, and Hezbollah is already preparing to protect its own followers from the oncoming economic catastrophe, a good sign that it has doubts about reconstituting the façade of the state to its advantage.

If Lebanon cracks further, as it surely will, spaces will open up that Hezbollah no longer controls. Wherever Iran has interfered in the Arab world—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon—the results have been anarchy and disarray. The so-called “resistance axis” is nothing more than an axis of failure and bankruptcy. The temptation of the Saudis and the Emiratis may be to allow the whole rotten edifice to disintegrate. However, that offers no certainty that they can shape the aftermath, and is not how they have approached Syria, a country miles ahead of Lebanon in its descent into the netherworld.

Perhaps that’s because the two countries realize that Iran and its allies are better equipped to survive in chaos than are their enemies. Certainly, the Emirati approach in Yemen has been to fill emerging vacuums with alternative orders to better protect itself—whether by facilitating the creation of an autonomous entity in the south, or by building military bases near, or settling pro-Emirati forces in, the western coastal areas to guard access to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Saudi Arabia is following suit. Having seen that it cannot roll back the Houthis, it is now focused on overhauling its southern border.

In recent months, there has been a noticeable shift in the positions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE toward Syria. The Emiratis reopened an embassy in Damascus in 2018, and there have been multiple signs recently of an Arab desire to return Syria to the Arab League. The Saudis have taken a more cautious approach than the UAE, Iraq, or Egypt, but ultimately the kingdom will go along with a consensual decision to resume contacts with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, this raises an important question: What price will the Arab states and Syria try to extract for such a resumption?

The Gulf states, feeling that Syria is exceptionally vulnerable—with reconstruction costs estimated in 2019 at anywhere between $200 billion and $400 billion—will most probably demand that Syria downgrade its relationship with Iran. Assad will not want to do so, but his options are limited. Few countries are willing to give money to Syria while Assad remains in power, so he cannot be choosy if he wants to initiate a reconstruction process. Nor will reducing Syria’s ties with Tehran be easy, so extensive is Iranian power in the country, reaching into the regime’s core security and intelligence institutions.

However, Assad does have options if he decides to recalibrate with Iran. He can count on the backing of Russia, which also has extended its influence over Syria’s military and security sectors. Moscow appears keener to stabilize Syria within an Arab consensus than Iran, and has been instrumental in trying to change Arab attitudes toward Damascus. The Syrian president also has an election this year. While its democratic worth will be nil, his manufactured victory will give the Syrian regime new momentum, as well as bogus legitimacy that he will try to build upon. That begs another question: What will Assad demand in return from the Arab states for going at least part of the way in meeting their conditions with respect to Iran?

Here the answer may be worrisome for the Lebanese. What Assad may well ask for is renewed influence in Lebanon. The structures of such influence will be different compared to the pre-2005 period when the Syrian army was deployed in the country. It’s difficult to imagine that Syria’s armed forces will return, even if the over 1 million Syrians currently in Lebanon can be a step in that direction. If Assad is guaranteed of naming a certain number of parliamentary deputies, and the various Arab states compel their local allies to include pro-Syrian politicians in their electoral lists, that may be another. At the same time, if Syria, backed by the Arab states, also has a say in whom becomes president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, that could further whet Assad’s appetite.

The Syrians could seek to anchor this through heightened collaboration with the Lebanese army and intelligence services. While we may not see Syria soldiers in Lebanon’s streets, what would prevent Syrian intelligence officers from being present in the country alongside their Lebanese counterparts? The Lebanese-Syrian Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination of May 1991, like the Lebanese-Syrian Defense and Security Pact of September 1991, could legitimize such arrangements, with far-reaching consequences.

What would the Arab states gain from such a plan? First, they may well consider greater Syrian control over Lebanon as a means of reducing Iran’s footprint in both Syria and Lebanon. If that were to unlock Arab financial assistance for Beirut, the Arab states might assume, it could silence Lebanese resistance to any such scheme. Second, the Arab states could consider Syria’s restoration in Lebanon as a way of stabilizing a chronically dysfunctional country, much as Syria did after the end of the country’s civil war in 1990. And third, by boosting Syria’s Arab bona fides through a heightened role for Damascus, the new situation could facilitate an eventual settlement with Israel, preventing Iran’s return, and alleviate tensions in the Levant while opening the door to wider Arab-Israeli agreements.

Lebanon’s reprehensible abandonment would in no way constitute an obstacle. The country has become such a headache for the Arab world that parking it under the domination of a regional state poses no problems—as long as it’s an Arab state. This would help explain why Hezbollah has been so adamant in its refusal to put pressure on Gebran Bassil in the government-formation process. The party knows the two prime candidates for the presidency next year are the Hezbollah-aligned Bassil and Suleiman Franjieh, a close Assad ally. Weakening Bassil, Hezbollah may feel, would only strengthen Franjieh and the Syrians’ hand in Lebanon, ultimately at the party’s expense. So, while Hezbollah and Syria are allies regionally, they are competitors in Lebanon and the party has no intention of relinquishing what it gained after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.

What worries Hezbollah and Iran is that the Arab states and Russia appear to be on the same wavelength in Syria and Lebanon. Reconstituting the semblance of an Arab order is desirable for them, as this would bring back some stability to Syria and to a region that has suffered from a decade of volatility and violence. The main driver leading to this situation, the Arabs and Russians might agree, is a revisionist Iran that has exploited and exacerbated sectarian and social divisions in Arab societies to advance its expansionist ambitions. In the process, Tehran has accelerated the region’s ruin.

This explains the emerging fault line between Syria’s and Iran’s allies in Lebanon. In this regard, one former parliamentarian described the tirade against Bassil last week by a prominent Syrian ally, Elie al-Firzli, as a sign of things to come. Likewise, the different paths adopted by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Amal Movement with regard to President Michel Aoun and Bassil reveal similar strains. Iran is feeling insecure about its stakes in the region. Hezbollah and the Iranians are facing incessant Israeli attacks in Syria, without any Russian support. Moscow is stitching together understandings over Syria with regional powers on opposite sides of the Syrian question—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, but also Qatar and Turkey. And the Astana process, which had brought Iran into a tripartite negotiating format with Russia and Turkey to address the Syrian situation, has fallen by the wayside.

The reason why all sides are unable to form a government in Lebanon is that beyond the personal animosity between Bassil and Saad al-Hariri there lies a deeper problem, namely that the nature of any government will have a bearing on the regional balance. Aoun and Bassil are the only partners Hezbollah has in its efforts to push back against Arab backing for a Syrian revival in Lebanon. Therefore, the party will not side with Hariri against the president and his son in law. This stalemate may last, and it appears that Hezbollah is now looking toward the nuclear deal with Iran to consolidate its role at home. Ironically, that is why it does not want Lebanon to fragment.

If this is indeed the thinking among the leading Arab states, then they should be realistic. The Assad regime will almost certainly aim to pocket any advantage it can secure in Lebanon, without surrendering much on Iran. The Syrians prefer to position themselves midway between the Arab states, Russia, and Iran to play all sides off against each other to their own benefit. In the coming months the situation in Lebanon will ripen more as Aoun’s presidency begins to wind down and everyone gets a better sense of where negotiations over the nuclear deal are heading. With elections scheduled in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon in the coming two years, the region is preparing for what could be a transformative period.


North Africa

Algeria: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship sinks

By Charles Gurdon, managing director of Menas Associates, London, May 5, 2021

State-owned Sonatrach took the decision in April to revoke UK independent Sunny Hill Energy’s interest in the highly prospective Ain Tsila gas field on the grounds that Angelo Moskov — who controversially took over Irish producer Petroceltic in 2015 and changed its name to Sunny Hill — is more interested in a speculative investment than a long-term commitment to Algeria.

The issue of compensation will now be decided in the arbitration courts. Unfortunately, however, this is only the latest self-inflicted damage to Algeria’s hydrocarbons sector and the country as a whole. For decades, Sonatrach has played hardball with IOCs — whether it was long-term take-or-pay gas contracts which became uneconomic or punitive E&P fiscal terms for blocks — which have made Algeria far less attractive than more flexible neighbours such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Simultaneously, different factions of the so-called ‘le pouvoir’ Algerian political establishment have fought for control of Sonatrach, which is Algeria’s milch-cow.

This instability has resulted in: eight Sonatrach CEOs in the past decade; numerous corruption scandals; unsuccessful licensing rounds; glacially slow and poor decision-making; delayed projects; falling foreign direct investment; numerous arbitration cases; and much more.

Production drop

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic oil production had fallen from nearly 2.0 million b/d in 2015 to less than 1.5 million b/d in 2019, which is similar to the levels of 20 years ago. Algeria continues to export less than its 876,000 b/d OPEC quota.

At the same time, domestic gas consumption is constantly increasing — from 32% of production in 2000 to 62% today — thereby reducing exports and government revenues. When Algeria’s population reaches 50 million by 2030 there is the very real risk that it will be no long be able to export gas.

The disastrous situation in the hydrocarbons sector is mirrored in the country as a whole. It had been hoped that the political and economic paralysis of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s final five years would be replaced by a more dynamic proactive government.

Instead, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was fraudulently installed by the army in late 2019 in yet another election in which the actual turnout was less than 10%. Tebboune is now insisting on holding legislative elections on 12 June despite them almost certainly being boycotted, not only by most of the political parties, but also the vast majority of the population.

These are designed to divert attention away from the vast anti-regime ‘Hirak’ demonstrations which resumed in February after a COVID-19 lockdown. Despite increasing police violence and mass arrests, hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of Algerians protest on the country’s streets each week.

So far, they have done so 115 times on Fridays, and there are also large weekly student demonstrations every Tuesday. The regime’s violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, rigged trials and propaganda have failed to stop the Hirak demonstrators, who continue to demand genuine democracy and an end to the incompetent kleptocracy that has ruined post-independence Algeria.

Tebboune, who spent three months in a German hospital, is suffering from long-COVID and is currently physically, and probably mentally, incapable of running the country. He is increasingly seen as a lame-duck president and one faction of the army and intelligence services — who imposed him on the country — are considering replacing him. Another believes that increased repression will re-exert the regime’s control over the Algerian people.

The lethargy in the Presidency is mirrored by total paralysis in Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad’s office, where there are at least 255 economic files currently awaiting attention. There has been no progress on major economic reforms and — because of a combination of the June elections, summer holidays, and autumn local elections — this situation is unlikely to change. It is therefore feared that 2021 will be yet another of the many ‘blank years’ that Algeria has experienced.


Egypt: Adapting to a Region in Flux

By Nael Shama, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East, 10 May 2021

Former foreign minister Nabil Fahmy discusses the evolving Middle East and Egypt’s role in it.

Nabil Fahmy is a former Egyptian foreign minister, who has spent nearly four decades in public service. He worked in the offices of former president Anwar al-Sadat and his vice president at the time, Hosni Mubarak. He also served at Egypt’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and was Egypt’s ambassador to the United States and Japan. After leaving the office, Fahmy established the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace, and Transition (Palgrave, 2020). Diwan interviewed Fahmy in April to get his perspective on regional affairs, and to talk about the Arabic translation of his book, due out in June.

Nael Shama: The Middle East is going through rapid transformation. What are the main regional challenges Egypt faces today?

Nabil Fahmy: Take into account that Egypt is on two continents, Africa and Asia, borders two waterways, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and imports most of its foodstuffs and its national security capacity requirements, tries to attract foreign investment, and up to a decade ago also imported its energy needs. With such realities you have to depend strongly on foreign policy. Therefore it is imperative that Egypt be activist in its foreign policy and try to stay ahead of the curve, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

As the Middle East has changed, Egypt has faced the challenge of how to lead the region and how to be proactive in a regional and global environment that is in flux. The region and Arab world are now being influenced by non-Arab countries in the Middle East. And many of the Arab countries, including Egypt, have gone through domestic transformational periods. So, we need to once again be ahead of the curve and that is a challenge in an unstable period.

Because of rapid population growth we are also more driven now than ever before by asset needs—in contrast to a period in the past when our direction was more visionary and was focused on political objectives. The biggest challenge therefore is to balance needs and aspirations looking forward, all at a time when the future is not clear. However, that is what leadership is all about!

NS: There seems to be a consensus that Egypt’s regional influence has declined in recent years. Do you agree? If so, how can Egypt regain its prominent role?

NF: I would change that a little bit. I think it is more that we don’t continue to have the semi-exclusive leadership role that we had in the past, at least for now. That’s true whether the people like it or not. The region has grown and changed structurally and functionally. To lead it you have to lead it differently. That is the first point. Has our influence decreased? Yes it has, but I still believe that if you want to define leadership it should not be in absolute terms, but relative to others. I believe that Egypt can, more than any other country in the region, have a very strong, even a salient, influence when it comes to defining regional directions on a multitude of issues.

Egypt’s uniqueness or advantage traditionally goes back to its intellectual soft power rather than its hard assets. We have always engaged on a multitude of fronts regionally and globally. We’ve had opinions on North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve had opinions on the Mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world), on the Arab-Israeli peace process. We’ve had opinions on the Gulf. And that’s just in terms of politics. We’ve also had opinions on economic issues and on social direction. More than any other country in the Arab region we’ve been ahead of the curve intellectually. I still believe that if we reinvest in creativity and refocus on that, we can regain much of our leadership.

It’s not going to be exclusive leadership, nor do I want it to be so. I am happy to have competition and I am happy to have others striving to lead in certain areas. However, Egypt has the foundation, manpower, and intellectual depth to engage simultaneously on many issues, more than anybody else in our region.

NS: Now that the African Union-led talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in Kinshasa have collapsed over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, what are the options available for Egyptian policymakers to deal with this challenge?

NF: Our leadership role was always about finding where the region was going or where we wanted to take it—setting the agenda looking forward. Frankly, if Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia had looked at the Renaissance Dam issue strategically 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we are today because this is an issue in which we don’t have conflicting interests. Ethiopia wants more development, which is possible. Sudan wants to regulate the flow of the Nile without floods and droughts, which is also possible while providing Ethiopia with development. And Egypt wants more water because we have a rapid increase in population growth. That is also possible, even with Ethiopia getting the electricity it needs for development and Sudan being able to regulate water flows.

So, the problem isn’t that there is insufficient water to address those issues. The problem is that over the years we have dealt with each other in an adversarial way rather than seeking solutions that benefit all. But today the options are very very limited. We’re at a crossroads. Either we will see, between now and the end of summer, the political will to resolve this problem constructively, which would be surprising since it’s so late in the game; or one country or the other will change its position fundamentally, which would also be surprising.

If either of these two alternatives happens, a negotiated settlement is possible. However, if there is no settlement we will be faced with situation in which Ethiopia will be creating facts on the ground and asserting that it and it alone can decide how to manage the water flow. That goes against accepted international practices regarding water flows that cross national boundaries. This will put everyone in front of hard choices. I think a solution is possible, but I don’t expect one over the next two months. A solution will require both wisdom and resolve.

NS: Do you believe military options are on the table?

NF: I never rule anything out. That being said, I always believe in negotiating first, second, and third. Only use force if there are no other options, because it always brings unexpected consequences, tremendous risks, and long-term resentments. My patience with negotiations is almost endless, but there is a point where negotiations become useless. That is why I mentioned wisdom and resolve. You have to have both, but take a decision when one has to be taken.

NS: Let me move to the issue of peace with Israel. In the 1990s, Egypt felt uneasy about the pace of normalization between the Arab states and Israel, feeling it was too quick. Do you think Egypt looks the same way at the recent normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries?

NF: No, I don’t actually. Egypt was actually the first to talk about a normalization of relations at the UN General Assembly in 1977, but we projected it as being the result of an end to occupation. Even under those conditions the concept raised eyebrows and discomfort among some circles because it was a novel idea. When we negotiated peace with Israel they insisted on including official normalization between the two countries, which we accepted while pointing out that comprehensive normalization, including with other Arabs, would not be achieved without peace.

In the 1990s, talks about a new Middle East were mostly presented by Israel and as a prelude to peace. We weren’t against a new Middle East, but our problem was that this was supposed to be a consequence of the end of conflict, not take place in lieu of an end of conflict. And that’s really where we felt that we could not forgo Palestinian rights, which are historic and legitimate, in exchange for short-term material gains. My position is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Normalization should happen, not only between Israel and bordering states but between Israel and all Arab countries, provided that the occupation is ended and you establish a Palestinian state. The concept of normalization is more acceptable today, but there still are differences about sequencing before or after the end of conflict.

That being said, governments can and will take sovereign decisions. I have told my Palestinian colleagues that I understand their concerns. However, I also told them that they shouldn’t spend their energy criticizing Arab decisions, which are the prerogatives of these countries. They should try to increase the diplomatic momentum and push the peace process forward, while focusing more on Israel.

NS: You mentioned the influence of non-Arab states on the Arab world. What are your views about rising Iranian influence in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen? Do you think a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran is needed?

NF: The Middle East is suffering from an Arab vacuum, one defined by a lack of engagement and creativity, an overdependence on foreigners, and an imbalance between the national security capacities of Arab states and of non-Arab Middle Eastern states—Turkey, Israel and Iran. All this has fuelled these countries’ ambitions in the region.

Second, I am an internationalist and a realist. Turkey, Israel, and Iran are not going anywhere. They will remain in the region and they will continue to have interests and aspirations. So, the issue is not about having them or not having them, but how we deal with each other. I support engaging all three countries. But engagement is not the goal, it is a tool to better manage the relationship. I don’t think we’re going to have stability in the region except through Turkish-Arab and Iranian-Arab rapprochements. By this I mean through the involvement of Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel when it pursues policies not defined by its right-wing parties alone, but includes centrist parties that can move the peace process forward.

However, to do all this seriously you have to proceed gradually. I don’t want to claim that everything has been resolved, but there has been progress of late in Egyptian–Turkish relations, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a dialogue. So, I hope these will lead to concrete steps from the Iranian and Turkish sides, and reciprocal steps after that to build confidence for a more serious diplomatic dialogue. I think the first contacts should be through the security services because interference in the affairs of other countries is above all a security issue.

NS: The map of alliances in the Middle East seems to be changing, as is the security architecture. Do you think that institutions such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are now obsolete, or can they be revived?

NF: The Arab League and the GCC are different. The GCC is subregional while the Arab League is regional. The issues of the Middle East are no longer a part of a bipolar Cold War era as in the past, when the prominence of the Arab League was at its peak. Today, we are in a period in which issues are more regional and even subregional, which affects the Arab League.

The Arab countries allowed the Arab League’s political approach—not its approach to social and economic issues—to be focused on dealing with threats rather than opportunities. If you’re looking only at threats, then if some members don’t feel threatened by a particular issue there is a breakdown in collective cohesion. And because of that, except for the Palestinian issue, most of the matters preoccupying the Arab world are now subregional. And therefore, the Arab League has not really been as effective as it should be, or was in the past.

I would add another problem. The Arabs have been great at adopting resolutions announcing they are in full agreement with each other, truthful or not, but they have not done well in dealing with their differences and their separate priorities. States need to understand that the regional composition of the Arab League supports all Arab countries in their interregional competition with non-Arab states. The GCC, which is growing very quickly, has done so because it has tended to deal with short-term, tactical subregional issues rather than long-term, strategic ones.

We are now in an evolving global environment, therefore it is important to invigorate the Arab League by focusing more on opportunities for cooperation while addressing existing threat perceptions. If Arabs do not reestablish a balanced national security capacity with non-Arab regional states—involving the military, security, intelligence, political, and other dimensions—and we’re living in a regional environment rather than a global political one, we will end up being on the wrong side of things because global powers today are fighting different battles. They are simply not as focused on the Middle East as they once were. They will not try to defend Arab interests at the expense of other interests.

NS: Finally, let me ask you about your book. I believe an Arabic edition is coming out soon. Does it include information not available in the English edition?

NF: It is due out in June. The English version that came out last year dealt with Egyptian diplomacy in war and peace and was directed at a foreign audience. That is why a number of Arab and Egyptian anecdotes and details were not included in the book. The Arab version has the same backbone as the English version, but deals with particularly sensitive Arab issues not dealt with in the English version, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example. It also includes Arab and Egyptian accounts that are more relevant to Arab readers. But I’ll let them buy the book and discover what they are.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.



One Year After the Death of Abdelmalek Droukdel AQIM Falls into Obscurity

By Jacob Zenn, The JamesTown Foundation. Terrorism Monitor,Volume: 19, Issue: 9, 07 May 2021

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been considered a stalwart affiliate of al-Qaeda since its predecessor organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching Combat (GSPC), pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2006 (Terrorism Monitor, April 5, 2007). The GSPC leader who pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, and therefore AQIM’s first leader, was Abdelmalek Droukdel. He led AQIM until his death in a U.S.-supported French operation in northern Mali last year (France24, June 25, 2007). Contrary to reports of Droukdel being uninvolved in operations, videos leaked by either the French or Algerian intelligence services showed that he had been meeting with the Sahel’s top jihadists, Iyad ag Ghali and Hamadou Kufa, in the months before his death (, February 2). Indeed, it was because of informants within the Sahelian jihadist ranks that Droukdel’s location was identified and he was subsequently killed.

Months before Droukdel’s death, the top Sahel-based Algerian AQIM member and top Sahel-based Tunisian AQIM shura member, Jemal Oukacha (Abu Yahya al-Hamman) and Seifallah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), were also killed in northern Mali by French forces. AQIM’s leadership in both Algeria and the Sahel have, therefore, been suffering. Nearly one year since Droukdel’s death, which took place on June 3, 2020, the results are in—AQIM has not rebounded with any force from the deaths of these leaders and the group itself is on the road to ineffectiveness.

AQIM has carried out virtually no attacks since Droukdel’s death and its latest statement in March was unimpressive (, March 17). It contended that an AQIM member who was captured by Algerian security forces was interrogated under torture, urged Algerians not to join the security forces, and argued that Islamic law, and not protest movements or democracy, was the answer for Algerian Muslims. The statement nevertheless seemed to recognize that protests were Algerians’ preferred method for changing the political order, and not jihad.

A previous January AQIM statement also asserted AQIM had “paused” the jihad to allow the protest movements to take place, but would once again resume operations (, January 18). That statement was also the first from Abu Ubaida Yusuf al-Annabi, who replaced Droukdel as AQIM leader. A veteran AQIM commander, and former GSPC member, al-Annabi, however, still has little to show for supposedly resuming the jihad. In contrast, AQIM’s Sahelian partner, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which is led by Iyad ag Ghaly and his deputy, Kufa, remains highly active in the Sahel. Thus, AQIM’s apparent disappearance from the jihadist scene along with the demise of jihadism in Algeria has not translated into the same in the Sahel; rather, the Sahelian jihad is becoming even more violent and widespread than it ever was in Algeria.


Menas Associates, London, May 10, 2021

The Government of National Unity’s (GNU) Foreign Minister Najla el-Mangoush has come under fierce criticism after insisting during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, that Turkish forces should leave the country in line with the October 2020 ceasefire agreement. On 8 May armed groups stormed Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel — which was previously used by the GNU — in apparent protest about her statement. It has been accompanied by a coordinated smear campaign against el-Mangoush on social media.

Despite her comments, however, there is little or no sign that Turkey intends to remove its forces from Libya anytime soon. Instead, Ankara continues to justify its military presence by pointing out that, unlike the illegal mercenaries who support Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) its assistance was requested, under the terms of official bilateral agreements, by the former internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). It also appears that neither Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah or senior military commanders in western Libya want the Turks to withdraw before the December 2021 elections.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, called for the ‘immediate withdrawal of foreign forces’ from Libya during a G7 meeting in London on 4 May. His was only the latest in the chorus of international stakeholders who have been calling for the removal of all foreign forces and, as far as Washington is concerned, particularly the Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group who have been supporting Haftar.

Meanwhile, on 5 May, the House of Representatives’ Speaker, Aguila Saleh, informed UN Special Envoy to Libya Ján Kubiš that the parliament is ready to accept the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s (LPDF) decision regarding the necessary constitutional amendments for the planned December 2021 elections. The entire LPDF will now meet after the Eid holiday to approve the proposal but deep divisions remain in the LPDF over whether or not to hold direct elections for an individual president, or party elections in which the winning party’s leader assumes the role. While Haftar and the east want direct elections for an individual, the west is fearful of who would win and, with a much larger population, would prefer a party-based election system.

Prime Minister Dbeibah has submitted a revised budget to the House for its approval. Although some cuts have been made, however, it is still probably too large to be approved by the parliament. Aguila Saleh still has his own political reasons to delay its approval but, simultaneously, his eastern constituents need the budget to be passed quickly so that they can begin to benefit economically.

The country’s Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it is rebranding itself as ‘Revival and Renewal’ (Al-Ihya wa’l-Tajdid) and that it will now operate as an NGO which will prioritise domestic charitable works and cut ties with overseas Muslim Brotherhood organisations. This is widely seen in eastern Libya as a political ploy because a similar election strategy has been undertaken by the Brotherhood in other MENA countries.

The GNU has appointed Hussein Mohamed Khalifa al-Aaeb as the country’s new intelligence chief but he is the latest senior GNU official who has with deep ties to Muammar Qadhafi’s former regime. Revolutionary militias have registered their opposition and the recent storming of the Corinthia Hotel may have been partially linked to this.

On 5 May a Libyan Coast Guard vessel opened fire on an Italian fishing boat and injured its captain. Although Italy has provided significant major financial and operational support to the coast guard — mainly as a financial inducement to prevent migrants reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa — the force has frequently clashed with Italian fishermen in waters that are claimed by Libya.

The latest National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) figures are that, since January 2020 when the pandemic began, there have been a cumulative total of 180,226 COVID-19 cases, with 3,072 deaths, and 10,474 current cases.




Research Papers & Reports

Bringing Assistance to Israel in Line With Rights and U.S. Laws

By Josh Ruebner, Salih Booker and Zaha Hassan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 12, 2021

Ensuring that Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance, complies with federal laws and international human rights standards will require closely tracking and monitoring its weapons use.


After many years of increasing U.S. military aid to Israel, members of Congress are beginning to debate the wisdom and morality of writing a blank check for weapons—some of which are used against Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in violation of U.S. laws.

A recent exchange between legislators shows the evolving debate. Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced a bill on April 15—currently co-sponsored by seventeen representatives—to ensure that U.S. funding is not used for Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinian children in its military judicial system, forced displacement of Palestinians through home demolitions and evictions, and illegal annexations of Palestinian land. In response, Congressman Ted Deutch produced a letter on April 22, signed by more than 300 representatives, arguing against “reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance”—which essentially means disregarding Israel’s egregious policies and violations of existing U.S. laws aimed at protecting human rights. The fact that a bill restricting aid to Israel drew seventeen sponsors to date and a letter defending that aid was signed by three-quarters of members—as opposed to all of them—shows that the debate is slowly shifting.

Meanwhile, the emerging policies of President Joe Biden’s administration reflect an uncomfortable paradox. The interim national security strategy calls for the United States to defend and protect human rights in its foreign policy and to lead in restoring multilateralism and rules in the international system. The word “values” appears twenty-five times in the twenty-three-page document. However, the strategy also pledges to maintain an ironclad commitment to Israel’s military aid—despite the apparent contradiction with declared U.S. policy objectives, such as a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the continuing de facto annexation of the West Bank, home demolitions, evictions, and destruction of entire Palestinian neighborhoods and communities.

Leading progressive Democrats are calling for the Biden administration to center values in its policy toward Israel and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And a growing number of voters support initiatives to restrict U.S. aid to Israel due to its human rights violations. Yet, even if there were enough votes in Congress for these initiatives to become law, another challenge looms: establishing transparent weapons transfer practices to ensure the necessary tracking and end-use monitoring. Until then, the administration should enforce existing laws that prohibit the use of U.S. security assistance for illegitimate purposes and specifically restrict aid from further entrenching Israeli occupation.

The Largess of U.S. Assistance to Israel

Through FY2020, the United States has provided Israel with $146 billion in military, economic, and missile defense funding. Adjusted for inflation, this amount is equivalent to $236 billion in 2018 dollars, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War II.

Today, almost all U.S. assistance to Israel is in the form of weapons grants. Israel receives $3.3 billion annually in foreign military financing (FMF). It also receives $500 million for joint U.S.-Israeli research, development, and deployment of missile defense systems; however, these anti-missile systems almost wholly benefit Israeli military needs. In FY2021, the administration of former president Donald Trump requested $3.3 billion in FMF for Israel, constituting 59 percent of the requested global FMF budget. Israel receives more FMF than all other countries in the world combined.

Yet Israel is more than capable of purchasing its own weapons. According to the World Bank, it has the twenty-ninth-largest per capita GDP in the world, ahead of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, and Japan.

Since 1999, the parameters for U.S. assistance to Israel have been set in memoranda of understanding (MOUs) between the two countries. These ten-year MOUs include promises of presidential budgetary requests for assistance to Israel, but Congress must still appropriate the actual amounts of assistance annually. In practice, Congress adheres to the president’s budgetary requests without changes.

The last MOU was signed in 2016, pledging $33 billion in FMF and $5 billion in missile defense funding for FY2019–2028, the largest totals in the history of these MOUs. However, notably, this MOU phases out an exemption known as offshore procurement (OSP), which allows Israel to use a percentage of FMF on its domestic weapons industry; all other countries receiving FMF are required to spend it solely on U.S. weapons. This is a significant change, as in FY2019, OSP amounted to an $815 million annual subsidization by U.S. taxpayers of Israeli weapons manufacturers. The phaseout reflects that Israel has become one of the world’s leading arms exporters, selling approximately $9 billion in arms in 2017.

Although both countries agreed in the MOU not to seek changes to the specified amounts of FMF and missile defense funds, Congress has made these already unprecedented levels of assistance to Israel a floor rather than a ceiling. In the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress authorized “not less than” $3.3 billion annually in FMF to Israel, giving it the flexibility to appropriate funds beyond those agreed upon in the MOU.

Laws Governing U.S. Assistance

Debate about whether U.S. security assistance to foreign countries should be conditioned upon human rights criteria discounts a simple fact. U.S. law is clear: all countries receiving U.S. aid must meet human rights standards, and countries violating these standards are liable to be sanctioned and ineligible for U.S. funding:

- The Foreign Assistance Act (P.L. 87–195) regulates all forms of U.S. assistance to foreign countries. It states that no assistance may be provided to a country “which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

- The Arms Export Control Act (P.L. 90–629) regulates U.S. military assistance and sales to foreign countries. It states that the United States can furnish weapons to foreign countries “solely for internal security, for legitimate self-defense,” and for a few other limited purposes. No credits, guarantees, sales, or deliveries of weapons can be given to a country if it is “in substantial violation” of these purposes.

- The Leahy Laws require the Departments of State and Defense to vet individual military units and individuals before they are eligible to receive U.S. equipment or training. The Department of State version of the law states that no form of assistance can be provided “to any unit of the security forces” committing “a gross violation of human rights.” The Department of Defense version states that no training or equipment can be given to a military unit that “has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Another indisputable fact is that the United States has placed conditions on other countries’ FMF. For example, in the FY2021 budget, $225 million of $1.3 billion in FMF for Egypt is withheld from obligation until the Department of State certifies that Egypt is “taking sustained and effective steps” to strengthen human rights.

However, when it comes to Israel, additional conditions do not apply and general human rights laws are almost never adhered to. Furthermore, weapons flows to Israel are much less transparent than those to other countries, making implementation of these laws more difficult.

Transparency and Oversight

Most countries receive allocations of FMF in quarterly installments, and the money is kept in U.S.-controlled bank accounts until the country wishes to draw down from its allocation to purchase weapons. This arrangement allows the United States greater oversight over weapons purchases and better control over the purse strings to ensure countries’ compliance with U.S. laws.

Israel, however, enjoys preferential status. Since FY1991, Congress has authorized Israel to receive its FMF allocation in one lump sum and early (within thirty days of the budget’s enactment). Moreover, Israel is allowed to hold these FMF funds in a U.S. interest-bearing bank account so that Israel ends up with more than its annual allocation of $3.3 billion.

Israel is also the only country in the world for which the United States does not have tracking mechanisms to determine which weapons go to which military unit. This opacity makes it nearly impossible for the Departments of State and Defense to properly implement Leahy Law vetting requirements. Vetting only occurs for Israeli military personnel applying to U.S. training programs, and this training is a drop in the bucket of Israel’s FMF package—just 0.02 percent of FMF in 2018, leaving the remaining 99.98 percent of FMF untraceable.

Another unique feature of U.S. assistance to Israel that undermines oversight is the provision for OSP. Although this subsidization of Israel’s military weapons manufacturing will be phased out by FY2028, it will still amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per year until then. Prior to 2016, the United States had no mechanism to track how OSP funds were used—it was essentially giving Israel a blank check. The 2016 MOU requires Israel to provide “detailed programmatic information” on OSP to the executive branch but omits any provision for transmitting it to Congress or making it public.

After the U.S.-Israel MOU Ends in 2028

Some U.S. assistance could be justified as fulfilling Israel’s legitimate self-defense needs and be in line with U.S. law—for example, defense against Iran and its regional proxies and against oftentimes indiscriminate rockets fired by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups from the Gaza Strip. But the continued provision of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Israel—which helps entrench its military occupation of Palestinian land in violation of U.S. law—is becoming more difficult to justify, particularly given U.S. budgetary constraints and given that Israel, with a per capita GDP rivaling Western European countries, could (and already does) purchase weapons, equipment, and fuel from the United States.

Though some might argue that ending grants to Israel will push it to purchase from other countries and undermine the alliance, U.S.-Israel co-development and research of weapons systems and the need to maintain interoperability make this unlikely. In fact, Congress passed a new program to institutionalize U.S.-Israel co-development in cooperation with defense contractors. Both the executive branch and Congress are committed to fully funding the terms of the MOU through 2028. However, ending FMF after this MOU and ensuring that Israel’s future purchases of U.S. weapons are consonant with U.S. law would make taxpayers less directly complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.

Others might argue for continuing security assistance despite human rights concerns because of the U.S. national security benefits that derive from sharing defense technologies with Israel. But these technologies are generally purpose-specific and based on Israel’s location, size, and strategy; U.S. dollars would be better spent in funding development that meets U.S. specifications and needs. Foreign weapons grants and sales also create domestic economic dependencies around their continuation, which have little to do with the raison d’être for the security assistance.

Policy Recommendations

The United States is not the world’s police, but it does have obligations under both federal and international law to ensure that it is not furthering human rights abuses. Toward meeting those obligations and preventing further deterioration of the situation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration should:

- Enforce U.S. law. No country should be above the law. Israel should be held to the same standards as other recipients of U.S. assistance or purchased weapons. This means that the State Department must robustly vet not only individual Israeli soldiers receiving U.S. training but also Israeli military units receiving U.S. equipment. The flow of weapons to units that commit gross violations of human rights must be cut off as required by the Leahy Laws. The United States should investigate Israel’s potential violations of the Arms Export Control Act and suspend the sale and delivery of weapons used to commit human rights abuses. Finally, the United States must comprehensively review the entirety of Israel’s human rights records in light of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits providing assistance to a country that engages in a systematic pattern of human rights violations.

- Ensure U.S. policy objectives are achieved by further restricting assistance. U.S. assistance to Israel should not take the form of a blank check that Israel can use to entrench its occupation and obstruct U.S. policy goals. First, U.S. weapons should be conditioned on normative behavior, thus requiring a complete and verifiable freezing of settlement growth. Second, the Biden administration should work with Congress to insert language into the budget to withhold a portion of U.S. assistance until Israel makes demonstrable improvements in its human rights record. Such language could be borrowed from conditions currently imposed on U.S. assistance to Egypt. Third, Israel should not be allowed to employ U.S. weapons in occupied territories in prima facie violation of the Arms Export Control Act; language restricting U.S. aid to Israel’s sovereign territory could be lifted from previous conditionality on U.S. loan guarantees.

- Establish transparent mechanisms for weapons transfers to Israel. Under the current MOU, Congress should end special treatments such as lump-sum payments of FMF to an Israeli-controlled, interest-bearing bank account. The State Department should create a tracking mechanism to determine which pieces of equipment go to which Israeli military units. Tracking these transfers is standard for all other countries, and without a mechanism, the United States cannot adequately vet for Leahy Law violations. The United States should make public the annual reports that Israel is required to submit to account for its OSP; the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent, and victims of human rights abuses should be able to lodge complaints with the State Department for Leahy Law violations.

- End long-term, massive, taxpayer commitments. Decade-long MOUs on weapons to Israel are antithetical to long-term U.S. interests and make it difficult to ensure weapons are leveraged to achieve these interests. The MOUs also make it harder to ensure that Israel faces consequences for violating U.S. laws. The current MOU lasts through FY2028. Given Israel’s advanced economy and U.S. complicity in Israel’s human rights violations, there is no reason to continue this handout. After the MOU expires, the United States should require Israel to purchase weapons. And selling weapons to Israel should proceed only after vigorous end-use monitoring is put into place to ensure that these weapons are for legitimate self-defense rather than for the perpetuation of Israeli occupation and colonization.


About the Authors

Josh Ruebner is Adjunct Lecturer in Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University and author of two books on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Salih Booker is the president and CEO of the Center for International Policy. Previously, he served as the vice president of external relations at the United States Institute of Peace.

Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.


Tunisia: A Revolution Still Without Monuments

By Malek Lakhal, Arab Reform Initiative, 12 May 2021

Ten years on, Tunisia has yet to decide on how to publicly commemorate its revolution. This paper looks at the monuments of the revolution – or rather their absence – in the capital Tunis and how public spaces remain a deeply political arena torn between those who believe that the revolution was a breaking point in Tunisian national history and those who view it as no more than a small hiccup along the way.

It has been ten years since the resounding cry “Leave!” shook the formidable gates of the Ministry of Interior along the Habib Bourguiba Avenue at the heart of Tunis. Over the past ten years, the “Avenue” has become a labyrinth of barricades and barbed wire. Entire areas have become pedestrian-only due to police barriers, and large sections of sidewalks are no longer accessible to the public. This includes where the Equestrian Statue of Bourguiba has stood since 2016, on top of a marble base several meters high, a small distance away from its original spot, having been moved one year after Ben Ali’s coup d'état. In what was then known as the November 7 Square, Ben Ali erected a first clock tower (where the number seven in “November 7” took the place of “six”) before replacing it with another, 32-meter-high tower in 2000, which still stands to this day. A few days after the revolution, the November 7 Square was dubbed the 14 January 2011 Square. However, if we were to visit the square today, we would have a hard time figuring out its new name. The large sign that should indicate its name reads “Habib Bourguiba Avenue” instead. The main revolution square was not even misnamed; it has simply become non-existent in the grand continuum of the Habib Bourguiba Avenue. This toponymic detail speaks volumes about the progressive elimination of the small marks that the Tunisian Revolution has left on public spaces in Tunis.

The silence of the revolution is in sharp contrast with the almost comical uproar that Ben Ali or Bourguiba stirred to solidify their presence in public spaces. In the case of Ben Ali, this was manifested through giant portraits, the number 7 (in reference to November 7, 1987, the date of the “medical” coup d'état that toppled Bourguiba), purple (his favorite color), and “silent clocks”1 in city centers. As for Bourguiba, he manifested his presence through busts, statues and, of course, “Habib Bourguiba Avenues” in almost all Tunisian cities.

The revolution, by contrast, did not leave much of a mark: A nearly invisible “14 January 2011” square; a “Mohamed Bouazizi Boulevard,” previously called the “7 November 1987 Avenue,” which is referred to today by its administrative name, the “National R21 Road;” and lastly a handful of marble plaques placed by families or neighbors as a tribute to the victims of State violence (referred to as “martyrs” in Tunisia), who died on the streets of some quarters. This article will tackle the official memory of the revolution - or rather the lack of thereof - in the capital. While this absence is attributed “officially” to administrative reasons, it nonetheless remains deeply political in nature. Given that this issue draws a clear fault line between those who believe that the revolution was a breaking point in national history and those who view it as no more than a small hiccup along the way, it also highlights the failure of the revolution’s proponents in transforming the revolutionary moment into a political prospect.

The Non-existent List: A political convenience

Officially, according to the Tunis Municipality, currently headed by Mayor Souad Abderrahim of Ennahda Movement, the construction of monuments was prevented by the lack of an official list of the revolution’s martyrs and wounded.2 This list was finally published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Tunisia on March 19, 2021.

It took ten whole years of action and advocacy by the families of the wounded and martyrs for this list to finally see the light of day. Over the course of the past decade, at least four institutions have produced lists of martyrs and wounded persons: The Commission of the Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution, which is a branch of the Higher Committee on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the authority that is officially in charge of producing this list; the Truth and Dignity Commission, which published its own list based on the complaints and testimonies submitted to it; the Ministry of Interior; and finally military tribunals.

While the Commission of the Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution published a list on October 8 2019 on its website, it did not cross-check its list with those produced by other parties, particularly the Truth and Dignity Commission. Khayem Chemli, in charge of transitional justice at Lawyers Without Borders, says that, “The Commission of the Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution has long refused to collaborate with the Truth and Dignity Commission, despite the fact that this could have saved considerable time and prevented errors.”3

The president of the Commission Taoufik Bouderbala himself said in December 2020 that it was not certain that the list was free of any errors or omissions. In fact, the list produced by the Commission and published in the Official Gazette includes only 129 deceased and 619 injured. For comparison, the Commission assigned the same task in February 2011, managed by none other than Taoufik Bouderbala, included 338 deceased and 2,147 wounded in its final report. These differences can be attributed in part to the definition adopted by the decree establishing the Commission of the Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution at the Higher Committee on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

As per Article 6, “martyrs” are defined as “persons who have risked their lives for the revolution, who have died or who have suffered injuries resulting in disability between December 17, 2010 and February 28, 2011.” Moreover, during the Commission’s work, accusations of falsified medical certificates were addressed by Bouderbala against certain wounded persons. After the publication of the list in the Official Gazette, challenges must be brought in the form of complaints before the Administrative Tribunal, which has received more than two thousand appeals since the publication of the list on the Commission’s website in October 2019.

In addition to the confusion surrounding the list, the Prime Ministry delayed its publication in the Official Gazette. Since its publication online by the Commission in 2019, there have been several announcements stating that the list would soon be published in the Official Gazette. On March 19, 2021, the list was finally published, two days after Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced it. Khayem Chemli believed that this delay was political:

"Under Béji Caïd Essebsi and Youssef Chahed, the climate was hostile towards transitional justice in general and towards any recognition of the revolution. The work of the Truth and Dignity Commission was obstructed by all ministers [...] Under Kais Saied, the government of Elyes Fakhfekh (February - September 2020) gave priority to transitional justice, which is why the report of the Truth and Dignity Commission was published in the Official Gazette. However, [his successor] Hichem Mechichi is being manipulated by Ennahda and Qalb Tunis, two parties opposed to transitional justice. Politically speaking, the entire political class is responsible for this fiasco."4

From December through January, the families of martyrs and the wounded occupied the headquarters of the General Authority of Resistance Fighters, Martyrs and Wounded of the Revolution and of Terrorist Operations. This took place in the aftermath of the police violence exhibited on December 17, 2020, the anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi - and, for many Tunisians, the legitimate date for the commemoration of the revolution - during a protest organized near the Prime Minister’s headquarters. On that day, the wounded and the families of martyrs gathered to demand the publication of the list.

These same families and relatives are the ones who placed the very rare plaques in homage to the martyrs in public spaces in Tunis. These have mostly been private or collective initiatives done without the support of the central government and, barring a few exceptions, without the support of municipalities either. As such, a park at the heart of Tunis was named by local residents after Helmi Manai, the 23-year-old man who was killed by law enforcement on January 13, 2011. In western Kram, in the northern suburb of Tunis, a marble plaque pays tribute to the eight people killed by the police in the neighborhood in January 2011. There is also a plaque to which a roundabout was added in 2019, after being commissioned from an artist by the Municipality.

Local Choices with Political Motivations

The Municipality of Kram is one of the very few municipalities across the country which erected a monument, of its own free will, in homage to the revolution.

Fathi Laayouni, mayor of the Kram Municipality, who was elected during the 2018 municipal elections, is known for his disputes with the central government after establishing a Zakat fund, as well as for his disputes with Kais Saied and for his eccentric roundabouts.5 Since his election, roundabouts all over the city have been adorned with sculptures (a sea turtle, a 1948 map of Palestine with a drone hovering over it, a coronavirus molecule being crushed by a caduceus representing the healthcare sector, etc.) which have become the subject of ridicule on social media and in the press. One of these roundabouts, at the entrance of western Kram (nowadays known as Kram-ville), pays tribute to the eight martyrs who died in January 2011 in this popular neighborhood in Tunis. According to Laayouni, the lack of a list was never an obstacle to the construction of the monument:

“It’s a small town, everyone knows each other. Residents know who the martyrs are. When our municipal council was elected, there was already a marble plaque with the names of the martyrs of Kram. The residents had put it there. We had no interest in the details of the official list. As you can see, they have yet to publish their list, even after ten years. We know our martyrs very well and we took the initiative to soothe the pain and suffering of the families and dedicate a place in the city for it,”6 he said in September 2020.

Now that the list of martyrs and wounded persons has been officially published, it is no surprise that the issue of paying tribute to the martyrs and the revolution in the capital will become more politicized, revealing each party’s position with regard to the legitimacy of what many of the previous regime’s supporters scornfully refer to as “the wheelbarrow revolution,” in reference to the fruit and vegetable cart that the police confiscated from Mohamed Bouazizi.

Speaking on behalf of the Tunis Municipality, Henda Belhaj Ali, municipal councilor and president of the Names and Monuments Commission, argues that one must be rigorous in choosing when to pay tribute “in order not to fall into the trap of populism, which undermines the value of such acts,”7 considering Laayouni to be a prominent example of a populist figure. To illustrate her view, she gives the example of a square in El Khadra quarter in Tunis called “Habib Bourguiba Square” before the revolution but renamed “Martyr X Square”8 (sic) immediately following the revolution. According to her, the martyr in question

“was not a militant and was not taking part in the protests. The young man, may God rest his soul, went out and lit a joint. A sniper stationed far away saw the flame, fired, and killed him [...] Should we dedicate a public square to that? [...] I believe that public squares or streets should be named after people who have offered something valuable to Tunisia. People who have sacrificed something. People who have taken part in protests, who knew the risks they were taking, who were willing to give it all to effect change in Tunisia, who have sacrificed; those are the people who deserve to have a square named after them.”

She adds: “We cannot put the name of a victim on a wall that will stay there for decades. A martyr, however, who took part in protests or who organized a protest, is more worthy of such an honor.”9

Therefore, the councilor is explicitly differentiating between “martyrs” and the victims of State violence. According to her, the “true” martyrs, the militants who take political stances, those have a place in history. As for the victims, they are not worthy of such an honor, as they are nothing more than collateral damage. This distinction can perhaps be attributed to the inability of the Tunisian State, formed after the independence, to recognize the full citizenship of those who have historically been relegated under the pretext of “backwardness” and the lack of certain characteristics: the lack of modernity, the lack of civilization, the lack of education, and, in this case, the lack of political motivation.10

According to Ali’s colleague Ahmed Bouazzi, municipal councilor in Tunis affiliated with the opposition “Democratic Current,” the lack of official monuments dedicated to the revolution is profoundly political. He believes that: “The political and executive powers and the Ministry of Interior are against the revolution and its memory.”11 According to him, two monuments symbolize the re-establishment of the previous regime: The Equestrian Statue of Bourguiba and the headstone in homage to the martyrs of the Ministry of Interior, located a few meters from one another. He explains:

“Placing a statue of Bourguiba right where the revolution took place is an act of revenge against the revolution, against the youth and the martyrs. It is a way of saying: we are back. As for the headstone, it is a statement by the Ministry of Interior, who is telling us, ‘we built this for our martyrs and you are not allowed to touch it or come near it. Whether you like it or not.’ 12 They know that nobody wants that headstone to be there. That’s why it is so inaccessible: they don’t want anyone to touch it.”

The two monuments are in fact inaccessible to the public. The statue of Bourguiba was shortly accessible following its inauguration, but the public was barred from coming near it after tags were sprayed on the base of the statue in 2016. As for the headstone of the Ministry of Interior, it is located within the very large perimeter that the Ministry has closed off for its own security. It has never been accessible to passers-by. Bouazzi goes on to say: “The capital is an area occupied by the Ministry of Interior. They do what they want. They place barriers wherever they want. The Municipality is helpless.”13

What Monuments for the Revolution?

Going beyond the unwillingness to celebrate a revolution that came to deconstruct the political narrative based on a consensual and modernist conception of national unity, Iheb Guermazi, architect and doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that “the revolution has failed to define itself as an ideological project,” and, consequently, to be represented: “The revolution did not evolve from a moment to an idea. How can one represent a moment?” he asks.14

Guermazi believes that there are two interconnected reasons for this failure: On the one hand, narrative structures had been absent from public spaces for twenty-three years under Ben Ali; and on the other, the political establishment in Tunisia has refused to embrace the radical revolutionary moment.

In contrast with the doxa that Ben Ali was right to invest heavily in shaping public spaces to solidify his presence, Guermazi argues that the symbols of the Ben Ali era (the number “7,” the color purple, the clock towers in public squares) were empty shells, devoid of any meaningful narrative: Ben Ali wanted to hide the fact that he had nothing to say or add through an omnipresence of insignificance in public spaces. “The number 7 is merely that - a number [...] The clock towers are nothing more than that [...] All this was to say: ‘I am here, and I am not going anywhere.’ Twenty-five years after this void in representation, it was very unlikely that a sudden resurgence of meaningful representations would take place.”15

The rejection of radicality, the search for compromise and consensus, inherited from Ben Ali’s regime,16 and, more importantly, the inability to reinvent the national narrative to include the men and women who were left out during decades of power monopolization by coastal areas is another reason that Guermazi mentions to explain the revolution’s failure in leaving a mark on public spaces:

“The first three years of the revolution were a radical moment. The dictator was gone. The State of 1956 was in shambles. People wanted radical change. They wanted to feel the change in their own lives, not just at the level of their collective psyche. They wanted their daily lives to change; they wanted to reimagine themselves as individuals. Alas, the only people who could offer such a change in Tunisia were the jihadists.”

The alliance between Ennahda Movement and Nidaa Tounes reinstated the national narrative of Bourguiba, which Ennahda hastened to adopt. This alliance also sealed shut the already small window of opportunity for radical change.

However, this longing for a new life and a new dawn for the country and its people seems to still be present in at least part of the population, and the promise of radical change was in part echoed by Kais Saied. It is no coincidence that his election in November 2019 was quickly followed by a large-scale public space cleaning and embellishment campaign by citizens. In fact, the campaign was entitled « حالة وعي » (State of Consciousness), thereby signaling a reclamation of public space by citizens.

The lack of monuments in honor of the revolution is a sign of the refusal by the powers-that-be to acknowledge that the revolution has become part of the national narrative in its own right. For the moment, the national narrative of 1956 - that of great enlightened men and of modernization - still reigns supreme, despite being heavily contested. Under this narrative, the revolution is nothing more than a small hiccup along the way.

The few tributes to the unknown individuals who lost their lives while expressing their desire for change carry very little weight, even when they are recognized by local authorities. Public space remains a significant political issue which, given the various ways in which it is either confiscated by the State or reclaimed by citizens, reveals the fluctuation between the return to the old regime, where everyone would remain in their place, and the advent of democratization, where marginalized groups and those who have historically been left out of the national narrative can have a say.17


↑1 The term was coined by Iheb Guermazi.
↑2 As confirmed by municipal councilor Henda Belhaj Ali.
↑3 Interview with Khayem Chemli, Tunis. March 2021.
↑4 Interview with Khayem Chemli, Tunis. March 2021.
↑5 The author of this article is preparing a documentary on the roundabouts of Kram.
↑6 Interview with Fathi Laayouni, Kram, September 2020.
↑7 Interview with Henda Belhaj Ali, Tunis, February 2021.
↑8 The square is in fact called “Martyrs’ Square” and pays tribute to two martyrs who died during clashes with the police in January 2011: Elyes Krir (killed on January 16, 2011 while defending the neighborhood at night with other residents. Elyes was killed by an unidentified shooter in a black car according to witnesses) and Alaaeddine El Thairi. According to one of them, Alaaeddine El Thairi is mentioned in the definitive list of the martyrs of the revolution.
↑9 Interview with Henda Belhaj Ali, Tunis, February 2021.
↑10 Lakhal, Malek. The “lack” of citizenship in Tunisia: A critical reading. Masters dissertation. Paris. 2017.
↑11 Interview with Ahmed Bouazzi via telephone. Tunis. February 2021.
↑12 Bouazzi used the Arabic expression “فوق قلوبّكم.”
↑13 Interview with Ahmed Bouazzi via telephone. Tunis. February 2021.
↑14 Interview with Iheb Guermazi. Tunis. March 2021.
↑15 Interview with Iheb Guermazi. Tunis. March 2021.
↑16 Hibou Béatrice. The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. 2006.
↑17 See: Rancière Jacques, On the Shores of Politics. Paris: Folio Essays. 2004

The views represented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.


Cut methane emissions to avert global temperature rise, UN-backed study urges

NEW YORK - Methane emissions caused by human activity can be reduced by up to 45 per cent this decade, thus helping to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to a UN-backed report published on Thursday.

The Global Methane Assessment outlines the benefits of mitigating methane, a key ingredient in smog, which include preventing some 260,000 premature deaths and 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits annually, as well as 25 million tonnes in crop losses.

The study is the work of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a global partnership of governments and non-State partners, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

‘Strongest lever’

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environmental are numerous and far outweigh the cost”, said Inger Andersen, the UNEP Executive Director.

Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, responsible for around 30 per cent of warming since the pre-industrial era.

Most human-caused methane emissions come from three sectors: fossil fuels, such as oil and gas processing; landfills and waste; and agriculture, chiefly related to livestock.

Emissions ever increasing

The report underscores why international action is urgently needed as human-caused methane emissions are increasing faster than at any time since record keeping began in the 1980s.

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic causing an economic slowdown in 2020, which prevented another record year for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the amount of methane in the atmosphere reached record levels last year.

The good news

However, unlike CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, methane breaks down quickly and most is gone after a decade, meaning action can rapidly reduce the rate of global warming in the near-term.

Methane accounts for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Rick Duke, Senior Advisor to John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change.

“The United States is committed to driving down methane emissions both at home and globally—through measures like research and development, standards to control fossil and landfill methane, and incentives to address agricultural methane”, he said.

Solutions readily available

The Assessment identifies readily available solutions that would reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, mainly in the fossil fuel sector. Most, or around 60 per cent, are low cost and half have “negative costs”, meaning companies will make money from taking action.

So-called “mitigation potential” varies between countries and regions, according to the report. For example, whereas the largest potential in Europe and India is in the waste sector, in China it is from coal production and livestock, while in Africa it is from livestock followed by oil and gas.

“But targeted measures alone are not enough”, the partners warned. “Additional measures that do not specifically target methane, like a shift to renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, and a reduction in food loss and waste, can reduce methane emissions by a further 15 per cent by 2030.”

Drew Shindell, a Professor of Climate Science at Duke University in the USA, who chaired the assessment for the CCAC, said urgent steps must be taken to reduce methane emissions this decade.

“To achieve global climate goals, we must reduce methane emissions while also urgently reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” Dr Shindell said. “The good news is that most of the required actions bring not only climate benefits but also health and financial benefits, and all the technology needed is already available.”

New Technologies and Nuclear Disarmament: Outlining a Way Forward

STOCKHOLM - SIPRI has published a new report titled “New Technologies and Nuclear Disarmament: Outlining a Way Forward”.

This report sheds light on the impact of recent military-technological advancements on nuclear deterrence and disarmament. Noting that progress towards multilateral disarmament is hardly possible without prior and significant reductions in the largest nuclear weapon arsenals, the report views the resumption of bilateral arms control between Russia and the United States as the most important step towards disarmament at the present moment. It argues that these two countries should move away from their cold war era nuclear doctrines, which seek an ability to win nuclear wars, towards a policy of ‘minimal nuclear deterrence’, that is focused on deterring a nuclear attack.

In line with doctrinal changes, further cuts in Russian and US nuclear stockpiles could be achieved by removing nuclear weapons from regional conflict dynamics, meaning that they would no longer serve as a deterrent against conventional aggression. Such a change would help to reduce nuclear risks without undermining regional deterrence, as each side already has robust conventional forces comprised of precision-strike weapons and other advanced military systems.

At the same time, the report notes that progress towards nuclear disarmament would be complicated by long-range precision-strike weapons and strategic missile defences, which have raised the bar for credible nuclear deterrence by creating uncertainty about US adversaries’ second-strike capabilities. Lowering that bar and eventually reducing the perceived need for nuclear deterrence will require creative arms control diplomacy, including limits on strategic missile defences; stronger norms against both nuclear and conventional aggression; as well as a clear stigma against nuclear weapons.

For the full report, visit:

About the author

Tytti Erästö (Finland) is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.


Is a war between Egypt and Ethiopia brewing on the Nile?


By Olivier Caslin, Hossam Rabie, The Africa Report, 06 May 2021

At the start of April, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke up for the first time using very direct words against any action that would take away any drop if its water resources. In this second part of our series, we examine how likely military action is between the two.

In response to Addis Ababa’s announcement of plans to begin the second phase of filling the reservoir behind the dam under construction on the Blue Nile, Cairo — backed by a growing chorus of countries, including Sudan — said it will not allow a soul to hijack its water resources and is willing to use force to defend them.

Is a war brewing on the Nile? An impasse has set in less than two months before the deadline of what amounts to an ultimatum — issued by Egypt and Sudan — calling on Ethiopia to reverse its plans to move forward with the second phase of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The gulf continues to widen between Egypt and Ethiopia in a dispute that dates back to April 2011, when Addis Ababa took the unilateral decision to divert waters from the Blue Nile to fill what is set to become, by the end of 2022, the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.

Cairo is invoking its historical rights over the waterway, while Addis Ababa views the dam as a matter of national sovereignty. Both positions have become irreconcilable, with the two countries’ assorted leaders doubling down on their stances over the course of the decade-long feud.
Threats of military action

Ethiopia’s response to Egypt’s veto power over Nile projects — a vestige of British colonial rule — that the country continues to believe it enjoys, has been to impose a fait accompli.

As far as their respective populations are concerned, they manipulate symbols to stir up nationalist pride and prey on fears. For instance, Addis Ababa has talked up how the dam will benefit Ethiopia’s economic development by meeting its power needs, among other things.

For the rest of the article, visit:



DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government

By Onesphore Sematumba , International Crisis Group, 05 May 2021

After months of political manoeuvring, President Félix Tshisekedi has unshackled himself from his predecessor Joseph Kabila. His new government majority gives him more power to act. In this Q&A, however, Crisis Group expert Onesphore Sematumba explains that Tshisekedi’s troubles are not over.


What is the background to the new government’s formation?

The 26 April investiture of President Félix Tshisekedi’s new parliamentary majority, known as the Sacred Union, marks the end of a long period in which the president remained under the strong influence of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. Prime Minister Sama Lukonde presented his new team on 12 April and parliament endorsed it almost unanimously (with 410 of the 412 deputies present voting in favour), despite tensions over the division of ministerial posts. The new government gives Tshisekedi the freedom to push ahead with his reform program during the remainder of his five-year term in office.

After the controversial 2018 election that ushered Tshisekedi into power amid allegations of fraud from some observers, including the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo, the new president had little choice but to accept Kabila’s continued control over politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kabila’s coalition, the Front commun pour le Congo (FCC), won the legislative elections, securing 342 of 500 seats in the National Assembly. The FCC also attained overwhelming majorities in almost all provincial government and parliamentary elections. These victories emboldened Kabila to place his own allies in important institutions and state ministries at both the provincial and national levels.

From the outset, disagreements undermined the coalition set up after the 2018 elections between Kabila’s FCC and Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH); their incessant deadlocks prevented institutions from functioning properly. Although the coalition gave CACH the opportunity to take part in government despite its weak legislative presence, with fewer than 50 deputies, Tshisekedi was, in effect, unable to govern. After Tshisekedi was sworn in as president, on 24 January 2019, it took five months for the two partners to agree on the appointment of Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba as prime minister. Ilunga then formed a 67-member government, with the FCC securing key ministries such as defence, justice and mining.

Faced with this challenge, Tshisekedi started to weaken the former president and to counter the FCC’s influence upon government bodies by pulling Kabila deputies into his own camp. Deputies who remained loyal to the former president have protested that Tshisekedi used undemocratic methods in this manoeuvring. By appointing three new judges to the Constitutional Court in October 2020, the president secured the loyalty of this institution, which was once suspected of being in Kabila’s service. In November, Tshisekedi launched political consultations, including with civil society groups, leading to the coalition’s dissolution one month later. He then looked to form a new majority. The Constitutional Court allowed parliamentarians to leave their former political groups and join new alliances. This decision gave deputies the opportunity to switch political allegiance without the risk of being let go by their original parties and consequently losing their seats. In this way, Tshisekedi persuaded numerous FCC deputies to join the new Sacred Union majority, alongside opposition heavyweights Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Tshisekedi then secured a series of further victories over Kabila, shifting the balance of power in his own favour. Between December 2020 and January 2021, the new government majority’s deputies toppled via successive motions the presidents of the National Assembly and of the Senate, as well as Prime Minister Ilunga and his government. On 15 February, following negotiations between different Sacred Union factions, Tshisekedi named Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde as the DRC’s new prime minister. Originally from Grand Katanga and former CEO of the country’s largest mining company, Gécamines, the 43-year-old Lukonde belongs to a small political party without a single seat in the National Assembly called Avenir du Congo. Lacking any real political clout and without ambitions for the 2023 elections, the government’s new leader is likely to work in Tshisekedi’s shadow, allowing the president to carry out his policies unhindered during the last two years of his presidency.

Forming a new government was the prime minister’s first test. Upon his appointment, Lukonde pledged to form a solid government team to address the country’s problems. After two months’ horse trading of ministerial posts within the new majority, the 57-member government is hardly less bloated than its predecessor. A full 80 per cent of its ministers are new faces, however, as opposed to the previous government where some ministers had already served under Kabila, under his father and predecessor Laurent, and even under the DRC’s long-time dictator, Joseph Mobutu.

What challenges await this new government?

Controlling the various forces within his new coalition is Tshisekedi’s immediate challenge. The thorny negotiations to form the Sacred Union government show the precariousness of a majority that rallied to displace Kabila but lacks a shared political agenda.

Cracks began to appear in the coalition almost as soon as the government was proclaimed on 12 April. Almost 200 of the deputies who had defected from Kabila’s FCC set up a “coalition of revolutionary deputies” to protest the imbalance in the new government. Some provinces had several ministries; others had none. They accused Lukonde of failing to reward their “shift of allegiance” with a government position. On 14 April, in a memorandum addressed to Tshisekedi, this group threatened to block the investiture of Lukonde’s government unless their demands for change were met. On 26 April, after the prime minister and Tshisekedi met with the deputies, the National Assembly expressed its trust in the new government and endorsed its ambitious program with a decisive majority. At the end of a chaotic plenary session in a hall taken over by militants from the president’s party, the deputies cast their vote of confidence without proper debate.

Another weakness of this team is the plethora of decision-making entities prone to causing deadlocks within the coalition government. First, the appointment of powerful opposition figures to deputy prime minister positions, particularly Eve Bazaiba, secretary general of Bemba’s Mouvement pour la libération du Congo, and Christophe Lutundula, a senior official in Katumbi’s Ensemble pour la République, will severely restrict Tshisekedi’s room for manoeuvre within a Sacred Union where he will not be the only captain aboard ship. The other leaders of political parties belonging to the Sacred Union will also use their positions to ensure that their interests are being catered to. They will constantly be coercing their allies in ministerial posts to steer the governments’ choices. Such a situation could hamper Tshisekedi’s plans to develop a single, non-partisan program of government.

Indeed, the prospect of general elections in December 2023, when the big names in Lukonde’s government are likely to stand as candidates, could soon cause tensions and generate rivalries, destabilising the government. The president should also be alert to potential manoeuvres by the two opposition luminaries, Bemba and Katumbi, as well as by other potential candidates such as Tshisekedi’s former ally and chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, imprisoned in 2020 for corruption. Kamerhe’s party has secured four ministries, where he has placed members of his inner circle. Although Kamerhe is barred from participating in any election for the next ten years, his party will influence votes in his stronghold, the South Kivu province, where it is running against Bahati Lukwebo’s party, the Senate’s current president. Although Bemba is unelectable after he was found guilty of corruption by the International Criminal Court, a political decision by Tshisekedi could still give him a route back to the political arena. Katumbi, meanwhile, has already begun to prepare his party in the country’s 26 provinces ahead of the forthcoming elections.

Will this government be able to cope with violence in the eastern DRC?

As Tshisekedi said after receiving the deputies on 24 April, the government’s “top priority” is to put an end to violence in eastern DR Congo. Since the beginning of April, the population in the east has been protesting the ineffective presence of UN peacekeepers and the Congolese army amid massacres and other violence by armed groups. In North Kivu, where Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces are generally believed to be responsible for atrocities, people are increasingly defiant of the central government. In Ituri, after a period of relative calm, supporters of the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo launched a new round of attacks on the civilian population. In South Kivu, local Mai-Mai militia groups and rebels from other countries such as Burundians in the Résistance pour le droit au Burundi (RED-Tabara) are targeting civilians in the high plateau around Uvira. And in Katanga, Gédéon Kyungu’s Bakata-Katanga group and other armed men continue to terrorise locals on the basis of secessionist claims.

Tshisekedi has so far responded to the security challenges in eastern DRC by using force. His announcement of a state of siege in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces on 1 May – imposing martial law – has shown this once again. Yet his army has achieved only limited success on the ground. Both in North Kivu and in Ituri, armed groups have been remarkably quick to reoccupy positions previously lost to the army.

Considering its military campaigns’ poor results, the government should now explore different approaches to deal with armed groups. To this end, it should accelerate implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program aiming to reintegrate former fighters into the community. This initiative was agreed upon with the main donors in November 2020, but then blocked due to the political stalemate in Kinshasa. Organising a large demobilisation campaign is a major undertaking, however. The government should learn the lessons from previous DDR programs that failed mainly due to lack of political commitment from Congolese authorities and their inability to resolve underlying causes of violence. If the demobilisation campaign falls short of its aims, Tshisekedi and his government would once again have to resort to military force in order to combat militia groups.

Kinshasa’s new political situation should help Tshisekedi in his task; he has a new team in place and no longer faces the distraction of tussles with his predecessor. But he will need to accommodate a government that encompasses a range of disparate interests, as well as individual and group-based rivalries among the parties involved that could carry the seeds of future deadlocks. He must also manage the conditions set out by donors who expect him to turn the page on the Kabila era before releasing their funds.

Tshisekedi needs to tackle the issue of armed groups as a matter of urgency. “There’s no time to lose”, tweeted Katumbi on 26 April, adding that “Sama Lukonde’s new government paves the way to peace in the east”. Tshisekedi should now get to work. Some political leaders are already suspected of having reached agreements with armed actors before the 2023 elections, in order to put political pressure on Kinshasa, or possibly to trigger violence if their demands are not met. Tshisekedi, who now has the necessary institutional scope for action, must do everything in his power to cut the links between armed groups and politicians who, since the 1990s, have used them for their own political or financial ends. This is the only way for the DRC to benefit from his promised reforms.


Violence in Somalia, Déby’s Death and Islamist Militancy in Africa

By Richard Atwood, Interim President, International Crisis Group, 04 May 2021

In his Interim President’s Take on this month’s CrisisWatch, Richard Atwood looks at what Somalia’s political crisis and Chadian President’s Idriss Déby’s death mean for Africa’s struggles against Islamist militancy.


For decades, the centre of gravity of jihadist militancy swung between South Asia and the Middle East


In the early 1990s, Arab volunteers who had been fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan returned home to battle governments they declared un-Islamic. Later that decade, as those rebellions petered out, many fighters retreated to Afghanistan, then under Taliban control. After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-backed ouster of the Taliban, foreign militants who weren’t killed or captured mostly hid in the Pakistani tribal areas or scattered. Then came the 2003 U.S. Iraq war, which breathed new life into global jihadism. Thousands of militants travelled to fight U.S. soldiers in the heart of the Arab world. That rebellion was also beaten back, in part by a U.S.-sponsored tribal revolt tapping local anger at jihadists’ brutality. The descent of the 2011 Arab uprisings into chaos created new opportunity for militants, paving the way for the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, its expansion elsewhere and the growth of local al-Qaeda branches.

Since the ISIS caliphate’s collapse in Iraq and Syria, however, it’s sub-Saharan Africa that has suffered some of the fiercest battles against jihadists. 

Weak states across the continent struggle to contain often dogged and nimble militant factions operating over vast hinterlands where central authorities hold little sway. Parts of the Sahel have seen spiralling bloodshed, in large part due to fighting involving jihadists whose reach has extended from northern Mali to the country’s centre, into Niger and across rural Burkina Faso. Boko Haram’s jihadist insurgents have lost the swathes of north-eastern Nigeria they controlled some years ago and the movement has fractured. But its splinter groups still menace areas around Lake Chad. In East Africa, Al-Shabaab’s decade-and-a-half-long rebellion remains potent. Militants control large parts of Somalia’s rural south, operate shadow courts and tax or extort people far beyond those areas, and mount attacks in neighbouring countries. Add to this picture a new front: in northern Mozambique, local insurgents, whom ISIS claims fight under its banner, have escalated attacks on security forces and civilians, forcing nearly a million people to flee their homes.

Two things happened this past month that could play an outsized role in shaping jihadists’ fortunes in Africa.

The first, as this month’s CrisisWatch entry documents, is the nosedive Somali politics have taken.

That owes a great deal to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. When Farmajo came to power in 2017, many welcomed him as a reformer able to tackle the graft and bridge the divides that had long plagued Somali politics. Those expectations lie in tatters. Farmajo’s tenure has been marked by bitter disputes, increasingly along clan lines, pitting his government against rivals in the capital Mogadishu and leaders of some of Somalia’s regions. It’s not all Farmajo’s fault: Gulf Arab powers, in particular, have widened the rifts by picking sides. But the president’s divisive rule bears much of the blame.

The standoff boiled over these past few weeks. After months of stuttering talks over voting procedures, Somalia’s Parliament extended Farmajo’s term in office. His rivals, infuriated by the decision, brought loyal security forces into parts of Mogadishu. Farmajo deployed his own loyalists to take back those areas. Fighting on the capital’s streets was, to many residents, alarmingly reminiscent of the 1990s civil war when rival clans battled street-to-street. Farmajo has since dropped the term extension and violence has ebbed. But the path to credible elections, which are necessary to turn the page, is still fraught.

How’s this relevant to Islamist militancy? Put simply, the crisis plays straight into Al-Shabaab’s hands.

Factions in Somalia’s security forces, including those trained by foreign governments to combat Al-Shabaab, are now facing off against each other. Not just that – units flooding into Mogadishu in support of political leaders have vacated their positions on front lines, leaving room for Al-Shabaab to move in. The infighting shows once again – also to militants themselves – how hard it will be to build a coherent Somali army from units loyal to squabbling factions, especially with clan divisions now rubbed raw. It also shows that for a Somali political elite set on retaining or winning power, fighting Al-Shabaab is at best a second-tier priority.

There are other perils, too. Al-Shabaab tends to exploit local anger, backing marginalised clans or those seeking revenge against rivals. It has traditionally done so locally, rather than in national-level disputes. But the worse those disputes get, the more likely factions are to see benefit in tactical alliances with militants. Moreover, the longer the crisis continues, the less thought anyone gives to peace talks, which at some point will probably be necessary, given the low prospects of defeating Al-Shabaab militarily. Any negotiations already face an uphill battle, given opposition from East African regional heavyweights and scant evidence that militant leaders are themselves interested. But if Al-Shabaab’s Somali enemies are divided, hope for such talks vanishes altogether.

The second thing that happened was the death of Chadian President Idriss Déby, reportedly killed on the front lines amid fighting against (non-jihadist) rebels in the country’s north (see the CrisisWatch entry, plus our Q&A on the topic).

Déby portrayed his army as the linchpin of efforts against militants in the Lake Chad basin and the Sahel. Chadian forces often spearheaded operations against Boko Haram splinters (indeed, in the words of one official involved, the best way to understand the anti-Boko Haram multinational force comprising Lake Chad states is that “it gives Chadian forces permission to fight militants on Nigerian soil”). Chadian troops also do a lot of the fighting with jihadists in the Sahel, whether together with French counter-terrorism forces or as part of the G5 Sahel regional force or the UN mission in Mali.

There have been problems aplenty with the French-led, military-first approach that Chadian forces have often been the sharp end of. Operations frequently see abuses against civilians. They’ve sometimes entailed support for local militias whose struggles with jihadists have, particularly in the Sahel, fuelled rampant inter-ethnic violence, which is arguably as big a danger to the region as jihadism itself. Ideally, Déby’s demise would herald the rethink in Paris that Crisis Group has long called for and which would see military offensives subservient to a strategy rooted more in efforts to resolve local conflicts, including potentially talking to militant leaders.

Still, even were that to happen, force would remain necessary, at least to keep militants at bay. Other leaders in the Sahel are watching apprehensively to see if the new military council in Chad, led by Déby’s son, that has taken over after his death, pulls back Chadian forces from operations abroad to deal with unrest at home.

That unrest is another reason to watch what happens after Déby’s passing. Some years ago, when ISIS was at its peak, Crisis Group put out a paper called “Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State”. As the title suggests, one of the report’s core points was that jihadists tend to do well in conditions of state collapse. They’re rarely able to start wars themselves but grow or move in afterward when things fall apart.

We even cited Chad as an example of how Western leaders miss the forest for the trees. The gravest threat to the country’s stability, we said, emanated not from Islamist militancy but from Déby’s personalised rule and accumulation of power – a trend exacerbated by his tightening alliance with Western powers and the training they gave his forces to fight jihadists elsewhere. Without reform, he risked leaving chaos behind. Today, the dangers are all too apparent: the risk that protests at the military council’s rule meet harsh crackdowns by security forces; the threat posed by Chadian rebels in the country’s north or based in Libya; even potential splits in the army. Paradoxically, jihadists could stand to profit from any crisis, despite not having had an initial hand in it, much as they have done elsewhere.

True, we should be careful today neither to be alarmist nor make what’s happening in Chad or Somalia primarily about Islamist militancy. Many Chadians see Déby’s death as an opportunity to turn the page on decades of military rule, not something that Western leaders should view through the lens of its impact on counter-terrorism. In Somalia, the factional rivalries themselves arguably pose a graver danger even than Al-Shabaab. In some ways, making events in either place predominantly about jihadists would perpetuate exactly the overemphasis on counter-terrorism that has skewed Western policymaking so destructively over the past two decades.

Still, Somalia’s political crisis and the perils after Déby’s death serve as a reminder that jihadists’ fortunes tend to be shaped by geopolitics and by opportunities created more by others than by militants themselves. That’s as true in Africa today as it has been throughout many decades of fighting in Afghanistan, during the 2003 Iraq war and the post-2011 chaos in the Middle East. It’s not that counter-terrorism policy doesn’t matter: done well, good intelligence gathering and policing, careful military operations plus, importantly, knowing when to negotiate, can disrupt attacks and close space for militants. But in the end, the bigger determinant of whether jihadists make further gains in Africa or a post-ISIS revival in the Middle East will probably be whether there is new disorder for them to exploit. The best counter-terrorism policy, in other words, remains one that’s rooted in efforts to avert more wars or upheaval. At the very least, it shouldn’t set the stage for them.


South-western Niger: Preventing a New Insurrection

International Crisis Group, 29 April 2021

In south-western Niger, organised banditry could reinforce mistrust between ethnic groups and foster insurgencies that jihadists could exploit. The Nigerien authorities should take action to remedy the injustices experienced by communities living off livestock, initiate intercommunal dialogues and better supervise fledgling self-defence groups.


What’s new? Under the influence of armed groups operating from Nigeria, organised banditry is spreading to south-western Niger, along a border strip between the towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi. This phenomenon reinforces mistrust between ethnic groups, paving the way for the emergence of armed insurrection.

Why does it matter? Jihadist groups – which are already present in this border zone – often exploit communal violence to enlist new fighters. As they take root, they could open a new front against the Nigerien state and threaten to encircle Niamey, the capital.

What should be done? Niger’s authorities should complement their current security efforts with preventive measures aimed primarily at: remedying the injustices experienced by communities living off livestock; initiating intercommunal dialogue; and better supervising fledgling self-defence groups.


Executive Summary


Under the influence of gangs operating out of Nigeria, banditry is spreading in south-western Niger. Along a border strip stretching between the Nigerien towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi (or Doutchi), armed bandits have stolen entire herds and kidnapped hundreds of villagers. Many of the marauders are driven by greed, but others – in particular nomads whose pastoral livelihoods are imperilled by farmland expansion – take up arms to defend their families and property or to avenge injustices. In reaction, sedentary border zone residents have been forming fledgling self-defence groups. The insecurity risks creating the conditions for an insurrection that jihadists could exploit. The Nigerien authorities are mobilising their security apparatus to respond to the new threats. They should also redress grievances of herders impoverished by the pastoral crisis, reducing their incentive to take up arms, while pursuing intercommunal dialogue, monitoring self-defence groups and disarming bandits who pose a particular danger.

Cross-border banditry is not new along the strip linking Maradi to Dogondoutchi. For decades, it has fuelled organised criminal networks that transformed in the early 2010s due to external dynamics, primarily the war in Libya. Since 2011, the Libyan war economy has revolved around trafficking, which has facilitated illicit flows (notably of drugs and fuel) from Nigeria through Niger. Flowing in the opposite direction, weapons from Qaddafi-era stocks are supplying criminals in countries to the south. Concentrated in Nigeria’s northern states in the 2010s, these gangs have become specialised in cattle rustling, kidnapping and targeted killing. Starting in the middle of the decade, they exported their violence to the Nigerien side of the border: to Maradi from 2016, and then to Tahoua in 2019. The bandits have ties to the cross-border trafficking networks, and they recruit from all the ethnic groups in the region (Hausa, Tuareg and Fulani).

The new banditry is giving birth to new forms of violence, as the pastoral crisis hits the regions of Tahoua, Maradi and Dosso. The expansion of agricultural land greatly reduces the space available for livestock to graze, leading to pastoralists’ progressive impoverishment and sparking conflict between them and other land users, especially crop farmers. Many herders have come to see joining the bandits as a way of saving their livelihoods and protecting themselves from cattle rustling, as well as sometimes reaching a position of power. This trend was already significant in Nigeria and is now spreading into Niger. Some bandits remain simple criminals, but others, notably among the Fulani, have become public figures respected as defenders of the community.

The communal aspect of banditry threatens social cohesion in south-western Niger, as it does in north-western Nigeria. Sedentary border zone residents have come to associate banditry with the Fulani, who make up the majority of the area’s nomadic population. To protect themselves from bandits, villagers in the Maradi region are forming self-defence groups that are predominantly Hausa. These groups exclude pastoralists – and especially Fulani – due to prejudice linking them to bandits, even though they may be victims of rustling and kidnapping themselves. The Fulani are thus driven toward bandit groups to seek protection.

An armed insurrection against the state is becoming a real danger amid the communal violence, as the region is increasingly arousing the interest of jihadist groups from the Sahel and north-eastern Nigeria. The close link between jihadists and bandits is already evident elsewhere in the Sahel. The border strip extending from Dogondoutchi to Birni N’Konni (or Konni) is already a supply corridor for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which has anchored itself here since 2018, even attempting to collect a protection tax. Jihadists could take shelter in the scattered woods along the border from Maradi to Dogondoutchi, which already serve as a refuge for bandits. Finally, from north-eastern Nigeria, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), more commonly known as Boko Haram, and Ansaru, a JAS dissident group, are trying to move into Nigeria’s north west and closer to the south west of bordering Niger.

Niger reacted very early to the deteriorating situation along the border strip. The authorities have strengthened security measures, but these remain insufficient. Nigerien forces are deployed on many fronts across the country and are generally stretched thin. The effectiveness of their response to cross-border banditry depends on cooperation with Nigeria, which is longstanding but needs improvement. The two countries have strengthened cooperation amid the recent escalation of violence, but they are still doing too little to stop people from falling into banditry or an insurrection from emerging. Compared to other regions of Niger facing insurgencies, such as Tillabery and Diffa, this border strip has seen little investment from either the state or its partners.

To prevent an insurrection in this zone, it is essential to reduce the injustices experienced by pastoralists and to preserve social cohesion. The new president of Niger should thus make ranching a major policy area. Pastoralists should be better represented in land commissions and have access to more intermediaries to defend their rights. Such measures would encourage them to resort to law rather than force. The state should strictly supervise self-defence groups and establish communal dialogues as it has done elsewhere in Niger. Finally, the state must step up security efforts to prevent an epidemic of violence, in particular by strengthening cooperation with bordering states, though it should not rule out negotiations to demobilise certain bandit groups. For their part, Niger’s partners should take an interest in these areas before they face destabilisation, possibly funding a prevention program that Nigerien authorities would design and run.

Niamey/Brussels, 29 April 2021

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