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In quest of an Arab force

In quest of an Arab force

Egypt is pressing ahead with proposals for a joint Arab force to counter the threat of terrorism, writes Salah Nasrawi

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi flew to Riyadh this week to discuss with Saudi King Salman his proposals for a joint Arab force to combat terrorism as the Middle East continues to be overtaken by political unrest.

Thus far there have been no signs that Salman, who succeeded his half-brother King Abdullah, a staunch supporter of Al-Sisi, earlier this year, has endorsed the proposals, raising questions about the new monarch’s strategy to manage regional turmoil.

Ahead of his visit, Al-Sisi told two leading Saudi media outlets that he hoped Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries will join the military alliance, which he described as badly needed to safeguard the region’s security and stability.

“We have the capacity to form a credible force and [send] a strong message to potential adversaries that they cannot threaten us if we remain united, and terrorists cannot hurt us unless we stay disunited,” Al-Sisi told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an interview.

“We are presenting this proposal to our brothers, and there is an opportunity to start a discussion on how to achieve the security and stability of our countries,” Al-Sisi told the Al-Arabiya television network in another interview

While Jordan’s King Abdullah has supported the proposals, Al-Sisi said, he hopes that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates will join in.

Al-Sisi has become increasingly vocal about the need for Arab military cooperation after Islamist radicals in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in neighbouring Libya declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

He has urged Arab countries to form a unified force to fight terrorism in the region after Egyptian air strikes last month targeted IS jihadists in the Libyan coastal city of Derna in retaliation for the slaughter of 21 Egyptian Christians.

The proposals are expected to top the agenda of an Arab League summit in Sharm El-Sheikh later this month. Arab League Chief Nabil Al-Arabi said the summit, which will be headed by Al-Sisi, will discuss the “re-activation” of the Arab Defence and Economic Pact to confront jihadist terrorism and other security threats.

Under the 1950 agreement setting up the Economic Pact, the 22 League members consider “any attack against one of them as an attack on all” and allows them to use “all steps available, including the use of armed force, to repel the aggression and restore security and peace.”

Ideas to create a joint force have been floated before, but a pan-Arab military alliance has always proved difficult to achieve as security strategies remain largely a national issue for Arab governments.

At an Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007, leaders discussed an Egyptian proposal to adopt “a comprehensive concept for pan-Arab security.” The proposal was aimed at creating a “mechanism” to resolve regional conflicts “without foreign intervention.”

A year earlier at an Arab summit in Khartoum, Arab leaders made plans to set up an Arab Peace and Security Council that would be tasked with settling inter-Arab disputes, including the use of peacekeeping forces in hotspots.

The plan has never been implemented due in part to squabbles over sovereignty and national security and defence policies.

Separately, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has already set up the Gulf Shield Defence Force. The six-member council has also decided to create both a joint naval force and a common counter-terrorist body.

So far, these and other security-related agreements have largely proved ineffective or have remained unenforced.

But security in the Arab world has become a key concern in the current transformations that have swept across much of the Arab world after a series of popular uprisings in 2011 against some of the region’s worst autocratic regimes.

Political turmoil and the failure of state rebuilding that followed have given rise to chaos, violence and terrorism, prompting regional governments to search for better security frameworks.

Though A-Sisi has firmly and clearly stated the goals behind the proposals, Egyptian officials have disclosed few details about the envisioned military alliance.

On 27 February, the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat quoted a “well-informed” Egyptian official as saying the proposed force would be largely Egyptian with “symbolic participation from other countries.”

“The troops will be based in Cairo but will have units that depend mostly on commandos and rapid deployment forces with a joint command,” the official was quoted as saying.

The joint operational command will draw up plans, supervise training and prepare the force to be deployed in hotspots, he said.

Countries with armies will provide troops, while other partners will provide logistic support, the official said.

It is also not clear how the potential partners in the Egyptian-proposed alliance will shift from unilateral anti-terrorism approaches to a multilateral policy. While most Arab governments agree on the need to combat terrorism, they do not see eye to eye on how to eliminate its threats.

Saudi officials have not publicly reacted to Al-Sisi’s proposals or to the report in Al-Hayat. Following Al-Sisi’s talks with King Salman, the official Saudi Press Agency reported only that the two leaders had “reviewed regional and world developments.”

But several Saudi commentators closely connected to the royal family and usually reflecting official Saudi views have been outspoken about evidence of differing Egyptian and Saudi priorities over regional security issues.

A key disagreement revealed by these writers concerns the kingdom’s preference for an alliance that brings together Egypt and the rest of the Sunni Arab countries with Turkey to confront Iran and its regional Shia proxies.

Writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on the same day Al-Sisi visited Riyadh, prominent Saudi columnist Khaled Al-Dukheil said the kingdom is interested in Egypt joining a Saudi-Turkish-led alliance.

“Under current circumstances, this triangle is a strategic necessity that will restore some of the balance after the fall of Iraq and Syria. In addition, it will form a defence against the destructive Iranian role,” he wrote.

“Turkey is a pillar of this region,” he added. “Will Egypt be moving, even a bit, in the direction started by Saudi Arabia?” Al-Dukheil asked.

Another Saudi writer, Jamal Khashoggi, questioned Egypt’s strategy against jihadists in Libya and warned Cairo against getting “carried away” by its air strikes on Derna.

“Those who love Egypt should prevent it from falling into the trap of Da’esh and going into a war in Libya,” he wrote in Al-Hayat, using IS’s Arabic acronym.

In a Twitter posting, Khashoggi even denied earlier reports that Egypt had already sent troops to the Saudi-Yemeni border to help the kingdom secure the restive area, saying that the Saudis can defend themselves.

These views underscore sharp differences between Cairo and Riyadh in approaching regional security problems. While Egypt feels threatened by the jihadists and believes that Turkey’s support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood fuels unrest, Saudi Arabia seems to give priority to wooing Turkey in its efforts to confront Iran and its Shia allies.

The arguments of the Saudi writers show another fundamental difference between Cairo and Riyadh over the validity of the US-led international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.

Cairo has repeatedly talked about double standards in the way the coalition is dealing with IS in Iraq and Syria militarily, while insisting on a political solution for the crisis in Libya.

Though Egypt has backed the alliance, it has not taken part in the coalition’s air strikes in Syria. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which wants to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Egypt calls for a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Speculation that the Obama administration is trying to forge a grand Middle East peace settlement with Iran through its nuclear negotiations have sent ripples of alarm through Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.

Saudi Arabia, which has long relied on US protection, seems still to be hoping that the international coalition will be a positive force in curtailing Iranian influence.

To be sure, the differences over how to confront the growing threat of terrorism and other security challenges paint a grim picture of the Arab world. Much of it is in a mess, with the instability worsening.

Nevertheless, the region’s leaders remain as divided as ever, even as they admit that they face an existential threat as never before since the modern Arab states came into being some one hundred years ago.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on March 5, 2015