Commentary

Is a Regional Arab Alliance the Only Way to Battle Extremism?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The killing of 31 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula has raised the specter of an all-out war between Cairo and Islamic militants. The Egyptian government has already declared a state of emergency in some parts of the country, in a move which has received some positive support from abroad, but which has been criticized domestically. Even among those who have expressed support for the law, there are some who have urged Egyptian President El-Sisi to work with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Unfortunately, a quick glance about Egypt’s neighborhood reveals a reality that very few observers can be optimistic about, which is why some have suggested that the only answer to the current instability is a concerted military effort involving the main Arab countries.

Following the attacks against its soldiers, Egypt’s cabinet felt the urgency to act and, judging by an Al Ahram report, its actions have gone well beyond the usual actions taken in such occasions: “Egypt's cabinet agreed on Saturday to draft amendments to the military judiciary law that would empower military courts to try terrorism-related cases, in the wake of militant attacks that killed 31 soldiers and injured almost as many men in Sinai on Friday. According to Ahram Arabic website, a tentative proposal includes amendments to the military judiciary law to give the military court the capacity to look into terrorism cases that ‘jeopardize the country's security.’ The amendments would address assaults against police and armed forces buildings and personnel, as well as public facilities, public properties and road-blockings.”

Domestic opponents of the new law have accused the government of going too far. Daily News Egypt’s Adham Youssef suggests that much of the opposition comes from new government provisions which would see the creation of “a military buffer zone by displacing thousands of people living near the Rafah border crossing to Gaza, following the death of at least 30 army personnel in Friday’s attacks in North Sinai....Massaad Abu Fajr, a Sinai-based human rights activist, condemned all calls to relocate Sinai residents. ‘Any displacement means the Egyptian state is declaring war on the Sinai local tribes.'”

Considering the broader security challenges in the region, it is perhaps not a surprise that the Egyptian government’s actions have for the most part been seen as a necessary response to the attacks by the militants. For example, the National’s editorial issues a full hearted endorsement reminding its readers that Mr. El Sisi’s “actions to end this bloody internal insurgency deserve support, just as the attackers responsible for this latest attack warrant condemnation....No group immediately claimed they were behind the suicide car bomb in El Arish, which was by far the deadlier of the two attacks on Friday, but it bears striking similarities to actions by Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, Egypt’s most active militant group. The group said it supports ISIL....That helps explain the region-wide undercurrents at play in Sinai, and why the Egyptian government deserves support to prevail over the extremists....We encourage Mr El Sisi to bring peace to Sinai, for the benefit of all Egyptians.”

But some, including Arab News’ Bikram Vohra, have urged the Egyptian president to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, reminding the former that to tackle the country’s security challenges, all domestic political forces ought to work together: “Just when the world thought the Egyptian comeback was on track and there was hope of a fiscal resurgence, the violence in the Sinai attack has again turned a bleak spotlight on this pivotal Middle East country....One can appreciate President El-Sissi’s exasperation and outrage at these wanton killings. But before indicting his predecessor Mohammed Mursi for being the mastermind through foreign funding it might be more prudent to lower the rhetoric and give the Mursi denial of any involvement a chance to breathe. The best move on this chessboard now would be for El-Sissi to establish a blueprint of common purpose with Mursi....Otherwise this conflagration can spread swiftly across the Nile Delta and once it nibbles at the suburbs of Cairo there is no predicting how it can dramatically get out of hand.”

But the Sinai attacks are not the only cause for concern in the region, which is why in an op-ed for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, Ahmed Al-Sokkari expresses dismay at the fraying of the Turkish-Egyptian relations: “It seems that Egypt and Turkey are entering a break-up phase after months of gradual disorder, an outcome that will not easily be changed in the middle run, as long as Turkey’s pattern of behaviour towards Egypt remains irrational and hostile....If Turkey continues the policy of escalation with Egypt it will be faced with increasing isolation in the Arab world, in which Ankara tried during for more than a decade to regain influence via cultural, economic and political tools. In that case, it is expected that the traditional contest between Cairo and Ankara would deepen further into sharp competition.”

Further afield, the Islamic State and its offshoots are affecting the strategic importance and roles of other countries in the Maghreb region. The Daily Star’s Jacques Roussellier discusses how both Algeria and Morocco are now playing two very different roles when it comes to their relationship with the United States: “in North Africa, the inspiration and vigor that [ISIS] has generated among radical jihadists is leading to the geopolitical repositioning of roles for Algeria and Morocco. This repositioning is allowing Algeria to regain the regional influence it lost following its failure to play an effective role in the conflict in Mali over the past two years....The United States has put a premium on Algeria’s counterterrorism efforts and role as a regional stabilizer, in particular in Mali and Niger. By contrast, democratic and governance reforms remained at the top of the U.S.-Moroccan diplomatic agenda....The threat posed by returning foreign fighters has wider security implications for the Maghreb that both players will have to address.”

Libya, on the other hand, argues Abdel Bari Atwan in a recent op-ed for the Gulf News, has become a “chessboard for proxy wars…. Thursday brought us the third anniversary of the ‘liberation of Libya’, but there were few celebrations across a nation which has been mired in blood since the revolution, torn apart by endless fighting between rival armed militias....Libya has become a chess board for proxy wars between rival regional powers lining up behind the Islamic groups (under the Libyan Shield Force umbrella) or American ally, Gen Haftar. But it is the new kid on the block in Libya who is the most dangerous. There is a growing Daesh presence in the east of the country and in Derna....Daesh and its close relative, Al Qaida, thrive in the chaos and security vacuum left by the absence of an effective central government. Today’s Libya, as it enters its fourth post-revolutionary year, offers the perfect climate.”

The only piece of good news in the region comes from Tunisia, which, according to a Gulf Times editorial, may be the only country which lay claim to a truly democratic political system: “Analysts may see the pending elections - a presidential poll is set for the end of November - as another major step toward democracy. The Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes are thought to have the most support....By comparison with other countries emerging from the Arab Spring, Tunisia is in a relatively good position. The North African country has not slid into chaos like Syria or Yemen or its neighbor Libya. Where a general has taken over in Egypt, in Tunisia democracy is making progress. A new and modern constitution has been in force since the beginning of the year.”

Meanwhile, in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, the AQAP-Houthi conflict continues to create more instability in Yemen, despite several agreements aimed at defusing the tensions: “The Houthis’ expansion in Ibb governorate is being challenged by alleged members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), supported by local armed tribesmen, who engaged in clashes throughout the last week in different areas of Ibb, two local journalists told the Yemen Times....The state-run Saba News Agency reported that the Supreme Security Committee in Ibb held a meeting on Monday headed by the governor of Ibb, Yahya Al-Eryani, and discussed the security developments in Ibb with no reported action on the implementation of the Friday agreement. The Friday agreement requires militants from both parties to leave the city and stipulates that police forces are to guard the internal part of Ibb city while military forces are to be deployed at the city entrances.”

The Daily Star’s Misbah Al-Ali and Antoine Amrieh point out that similar internal battles are taking place in Lebanon, with a major military action against militants based in Tripoli well underway: “Lebanese troops battled Islamist militants behind attacks in Tripoli and the northern district of Minyeh for a third day Sunday with the death toll rising to 27. The Lebanese Army vowed to press on with its offensive until all the militants are crushed, a security source told The Daily Star, adding that the military was operating according to clear-cut dictums. ‘The Army has three Nos,’ the source said. ‘No to a ceasefire, no to safe corridors and no to self-proclaimed security zones.’...The clashes in Tripoli, widely seen as a spillover of the crisis in neighboring Syria, were the worst in the mainly Sunni city for several months.”

The growing instability is obviously a cause for concern, which is why the veteran commentator Abdulrahman Al-Rashed suggested in a recent op-ed for Asharq Alawsat that a regional Arab military intervention in some of the regional hot spots might be necessary to bring some stability in the region: “the experience of Libya suggests a method that may be suitable for some hotspots, if not to impose peace then at least to contain the crisis. It’s clear that Egypt, Algeria and other countries have recently been active on the military and political fronts to end the chaos and support the legitimate government there….If Arab military intervention in Libya succeeds, it may be the only remedy to end the chaos....The question is: can this experience be repeated in Yemen, Iraq and Syria?...The idea of military support, and not necessarily direct intervention on the ground, may be one of the means to control the chaos spreading in every direction, and which will likely continue for the next 10 or 20 years.”


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