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Heikal, Egypt’s most famous journalist, dies at 92

Heikal, Egypt’s most famous journalist, dies at 92

Muhammad Hassanein Heikal was well-recognised for his distinguished career in journalism and political experience.

Salah Nasrawi

Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, a leading Egyptian journalist, author, television celebrity, politician and a noted authority on modern Middle East whose work brought him worldwide fame and influence, died on Wednesday, aged 92.

Egyptian state television said Heikal, a heavy cigar smoker, died following a short period of illness.

As Egypt’s, and probably the Arab world’s, oldest active and most celebrated intellectual, Heikal was perceived by critics and admirers as a towering figure who had continued to attract attention until his death.

Above all, Heikal was one of the most trenchant defenders of Nasserite Egypt and its pan-Arabism trends.

Heikal was born on September 23, 1923, to the family of a wheat merchant in the Nile Delta province of Qalyubia. His father thought that Heikal, as the eldest son in the family, should join him in managing his business. Instead, Heikal decided to pursue his education.

Educated briefly at the American University in Cairo, Heikal became a crime reporter for the Egyptian Gazette in 1943. The paper which catered to the needs of expatriates living in Egypt had among its writers famous British authors such as George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell.

The following year, Heikal joined the staff of Rose El-Youssef, an opposition political satirical weekly.
Heikal first won public attention as a war reporter covering the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and then briefly the Korean war of 1950-1953.h the military coup in 1952 which brought Gamal Abdul Nasser on the helm of army officers who ruled the country after overthrowing the British-backed King Farouk.

As Nasser’s friend since they first met during the war with Israel, Heikal became a staunch supporter of the coup and helped in drafting Nasser’s manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution, which outlined his outlook for post-monarchy Egypt.

Heikal’s place in journalism was quickly recognised in 1953 when he was hired to serve as editor of Akhir Sa’a, an illustrated Arabic-language weekly published by Akhbar Al-Youm House.

In 1956 and 1957, Heikal served as editor of Al-Akhbar daily, a sister publication owned by media tycoons Mustafa Amin and his twin brother Ali, who are widely considered to be the fathers of Western-style modern Egyptian journalism.

A year after Nasser became president of Egypt in 1956 he installed Heikal as editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, the semi-official newspaper, and in 1959 made him chairman of the board of Al Ahram Establishment. During his tenure, Heikal improved Al Ahram’s coverage by subduing the sensationalism that had characterised Egypt’s media and taking it to the level of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most prestigious paper.

Under his leadership the paper provided a platform for Nasser’s nationalist and pan-Arab policies. Heikal’s widely read Friday column in Al Ahram, “Bi-Saraha” [or “Frankly Speaking”], in which he used to convey Nasser’s messages and explain the government’s stances, became the barometer of Egyptian policy.

The column prompted the Washington Post to describe Heikal’s writings as “the voice of Egypt” and “the outside world’s window on that secretive regime”.

One of Heikal’s outstanding acts was to establish Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies as a think-tank that provided Nasser and the government with updates and feedback on regional and international affairs.

As happens with the intelligentsia under totalitarian or populist regimes, Heikal had probably failed to draw a clear demarcation between his role as a journalist and as an outspoken advocate of Nasserism.

In 1968, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union, Nasser’s ruling party. In 1970, Heikal became minister of National Guidance and briefly an acting foreign minister.

Heikal had a rocky relationship with President Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Heikal remained editor of Al Ahram and adviser to the new president. He even helped Sadat to get rid of Nasser’s remnants in the government whom Sadat accused of conspiring to remove him from power.

Later Heikal fell out with Sadat over his domestic and international policies, prompting Sadat to relieve him of his duties in 1974. The disagreement culminated in Heikal’s opposition to the 1979 peace treaty Sadat signed with Israel.

At one point, Sadat accused Heikal of opportunism and betraying the national interests. A smearing campaign in the government-run media also denounced Heikal as a tool of the Soviet Union and linked him with unsubstantiated scandals.

In 1981, Sadat ordered Heikal to be jailed, together with hundreds of political leaders, writers and intellectuals who were opposed to his peace overture with Israel and his alliance with the United States.

Heikal was released a month later by former President Mubarak, shortly after he took office following Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. Mubarak, however, did not bring Heikal to his entourage or let him return to Al Ahram, and he was shunned away from writing in the Egyptian press.

Because of his prominence and his passion for journalism and writing, Heikal spent the following years freelancing for papers abroad. During this period he also wrote some of his most famous books, including Autumn of Fury, about the assassination of Sadat in which he condemned not only the former president’s policies but also his personal life through negative and even racist themes.

In the 1990s, Heikal resumed writing in Egypt. His pieces started appearing in Wijhat Nadhar, a monthly magazine that features essays and book reviews and is modelled on the London Review of Books. Some of his writings were controversial and even sessional.

On his 80th birthday in September 2003, Heikal said he would retire. In an article entitled “An Excuse for Departure” which appeared in Al Ahram, Heikal explained that he felt he had reached his “expiry date”. It was too good to be true.

In 2007 Heikal began hosting a series of weekly programmes on regional and world events on Al Jazeera Arabic Channel. Among the topics he discussed in the “Ma’a Heikal” [or “With Heikal”] show were US-Middle East policies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab divisions. As it was expected, Egypt under Nasser came up in several programmes.

The Thursday night peak-hour show furnished Heikal with a greater platform, turning him into a household celebrity across the Arab world, and made him climb the media ladder to even greater heights.

In the second episode, Heikal told his audience that Al Jazeera gave him “a real opportunity to talk to people without censorship on a wide range of issues”.

In recent years, Heikal was a regular host on Egyptian privately owned television networks. His discussions were mostly pegged to the 2011 Arab Spring and the turmoil it had triggered in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Even though some of the TV shows were conducted in a Q&A style, Heikal remained faithful to his old style, delivering a monologue on the themes of his choice.

Heikal had admirers as much as he had critics and enemies.To many of his disciples, El-Ustaz [or the Master] Heikal was an inspiration whether for his distinguished career in journalism, his intellect, his political experience or his prominence that earned him international recognition and friendship of powerful and influential people all over the world.

He had fans among Westerners, too. “His mind like a razor, that of a veteran fighter, writer, sage, perhaps the most important living witness and historian of modern Egypt,” wrote Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East reporter for the British newspaper The Independent, in February 2011.

Detractors, however, accuse Heikal of being guilty of treason by being apologetic to Nasser and his long-time propagandist.

That was especially noticeable following the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 when he coined the word Naksa, an Arabic word for setback, as a euphemism for the Egyptian and Arab armies’ bitter defeat by Israel.

For many Arabs, the conflict not only resulted in their losing the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights to Israel, but it was also behind all political tragedies that have occurred subsequently in the Arab world.

Critics also noted that Heikal had never revised his views on Nasserism, even though it had become clear that it had its great share in many of Egypt’s political, economic and social woes.

Among harsh criticisms levelled against Heikal is making things up. Critics often claimed he was using quotations attributed to dead politicians which they believed were fabricated to support an argument or serve a political agenda.

Referring to Heikal’s allegedly unchecked facts, Canada-based Iraqi historian Sayyar Al-Jamil, who wrote two books on Heikal; Decomposing Heikal and The Remnants of Heikal, believes that the journalist’s works are mostly “whimsical fabrications or self-serving twisted facts”.

“I do not trust the man’s tales, neither his way of documentation. His writings are aimed at a specific timely political goal or self-serving or to satisfy his admirers in accordance with prevailing circumstances. He has the ability to hide the truth or to kill it,” he wrote in The Remnants of Heikal.

But Sherif Younis, a history professor at Cairo’s Helwan University whose theses tackled Heikal’s works, says the Egyptian author was a source to be reckoned with. “He might not be a historian, per se, but he was there witnessing where history was made,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heikal’s literary production, which spanned more than six decades, covered a variety of political issues. His books on Nasser are The Cairo Documents: The Inside Story of Nasser and His Relationship with World Leaders, Rebels, and Statesmen (1973) and Cutting the Lion’s Tale: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes (1987). In addition to Autumn of Fury, his books about Sadat’s era include The Road to Ramadan (1975) and October War (1980).

His Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations (1996) was considered among the few books that examined the history of covert negotiations between Israeli and Arab representatives which culminated with the Oslo Agreement in September 1993.

Heikal’s books on Iran: Iran on a Volcano (1951), The Return of the Ayatollah: The Iranian Revolution from Mossadeq to Khomeini (1981) and Iran: The Untold Story (1982) made him one of the best Arab experts on Iran.

In his Illusions of Triumph: An Arab View of The Gulf War (1993), Heikal argued that Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was less a challenge to the West and Israel than an attempt by the Iraqi leader to assert his leadership of the Arab world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Heikal’s last book was Mubarak and his Time (2012), which extended his criticism of Mubarak, whom he portrayed as inept and corrupt.

With his death, Heikal leaves a legacy that will most likely be open for debate not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world where he left disciples and enemies.

Heikal was quite aware of his role in modern Egypt’s politics and history. “I lived to see and I told what I had lived,” he once wrote.‏

Heikal is survived by his wife Hedayet Olwi and three sons: Ali, Ahmed and Hassan.

Egypt takes the lead on Syria

Egypt takes the lead on Syria

Egypt should take a leading role in ending the Syrian conflict even if there can be few hopes for a quick fix to the country’s problems, writes Salah Nasrawi

With Islamist rebels, including the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front group, continuing their advance on government-controlled towns in Syria, Egypt is stepping up diplomatic efforts to help moderate opposition forces to work together for a political settlement to the four-year old civil war in the country.
But like all world and regional powers that have been trying to mediate in the Syrian crisis, Egypt faces daunting challenges. While several opposition groups welcomed Cairo’s decision to play a leading role in resolving the ongoing civil war in Syria, scepticism remains rife about forging a united and plausible alternative to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Cairo’s bid to unite the anti-Al-Assad opposition groups is also being challenged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are leading efforts to overthrow Al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime by backing the predominantly Sunni insurgency.
Nevertheless, Cairo’s invitation to some 200 Syrian activists seeking a political resolution to the inter-communal war in their country demonstrates Egypt’s resurgence as a key player in the Middle East where several other regional powerhouses are also vying for influence.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said that Syrian opposition delegates, nearly half of them from inside Syria, will meet in Cairo on 8 and 9 June to discuss how to form a united opposition front to resolve Syria’s vicious civil war and form a democratic transitional government.
Top Egyptian diplomats have met several times over the last few weeks with senior Syrian opposition representatives in Cairo to prepare for the meeting, dubbed the National Conference of the Opposition Forces for a Political Solution in Syria.
Egyptian officials said the conference would be hosted by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank associated with the Foreign Ministry, which will provide facilities but will not take part in the two-day discussions.
According to various sources, the conference is expected to come up with a strategy based on a UN-backed roadmap to end the Syrian conflict. The six-point plan was agreed at an international peace conference on Syria in June 2012 intended to stop the violence and move the government and opposition groups towards a political settlement.
The framework, known as the Geneva Communiqué, calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body that will “exercise full executive powers” in Syria. It states that the body could include “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
While next week’s meeting is expected to reaffirm the need for a political settlement to the conflict based on the Geneva formula, participants are also expected to lay out a broader framework for what they call a united, sovereign and democratic Syria in the post Al-Assad era.
Such a formula, they hope, will create the conditions for the emergence of a new Syrian state that is pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.
Among other main objectives of the framework is to restructure Syria’s army and security forces following the establishment of the transitional authority in order to avoid their dissolution which would create a security vacuum.
Realising the threats posed by IS and Al-Nusra Front militants who control vast amounts of territory in Syria, the participants will also seek international support to isolate the two groups, including a UN Security Council resolution penalising travel by foreign combatants to Syria.
In order to underline their differences with other groups seeking Al-Assad’s ouster, the organisers of the Cairo meeting have said a policy statement to be endorsed by the conference will call for talks with the regime “if it shows its preparedness to transfer all civil and military powers to a transitional government.”
However, the anti-Al-Assad opposition remains deeply split, and previous efforts to unite the rebel groups have faltered. Though the organisers of the Cairo conference insist that there are no plans to form a new political movement, other opposition groups remain sceptical.
It is unlikely that the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group which receives generous funding from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will send delegates to the Cairo conference. Some coalition leaders have even accused Egypt of “sympathising” with the Al-Assad regime.
After more than four years of a brutal conflict that has killed some 200,000 people, wounded thousands of others and forced 9.5 million people, more than a third of Syria’s population, from their homes, the Syrians themselves remain sharply divided.
In recent weeks the conflict has reached alarming levels, with hundreds of people perishing in fighting or in government bombing of rebel-controlled areas. Vast amounts of territory, including strategic cities and border crossings, have fallen to the rebels.
Turkey, backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has recently increased its military intervention in Syria amid speculation that it is pushing hard to establish an air-exclusion zone inside Syria which could later be used to carve out an area under its control in the north of the country.
The civil war in Syria began in 2011 when some opposition groups began an armed rebellion against Al-Assad’s government during the Arab Spring. By 2014, large chunks of Syria had fallen under the control of militants from IS and the Al-Nusra Front.
The Cairo meeting signals Egypt’s determination to reassert itself on the regional stage more than four years after the popular uprising which toppled the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak and set Egypt into political turmoil.
Last month, Egypt hosted meetings for Libyan and Yemeni political and tribal groups in similar bids to broker solutions to the conflicts in the two beleaguered Arab countries.
Egypt fears that the collapse of the Syrian state could trigger wider regional destabilisation and allow IS, which has established an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and the Al-Nusra Front to expand their influence in the region, compromising a central part of its strategy to contain the Islamists.
But Egypt’s resolve to reconfigure the post-uprisings shift in the regional balance of power in its favour seems to be unwelcome to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are converging on an aggressive strategy to topple Al-Assad.
While Egypt’s relationships with Qatar and Turkey remain strained over a host of issues, including the two countries’ support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, a disagreement over Syria could translate into a test for Cairo’s relations with Riyadh.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made a quick stop in Cairo for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on regional conflicts including Syria. While Al-Jubeir denied any “discord” over Syria, there have been few indications that Egypt has changed its position on pushing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“The meeting dealt with regional issues, in particular Syria, Yemen and Libya. There was agreement on the importance of reaching political solutions to the conflicts in these countries which will stop the bloodshed, protect their territorial integrity, and preserve their national institutions,” said a statement from the Egyptian presidency following Al-Jubeir’s meeting with Al-Sisi.
But diplomatic words alone cannot paper over the ambiguity or even contradictory messages in the statement. A meticulous reading of the text shows that Egypt is standing by its position that any solution to the Syrian crisis must ensure the unity of the country and keep its state apparatus and army intact.
In this regard the Saudi stance on Syria is not close to that of Egypt, which also says Al-Assad should be part of a negotiated settlement. Egypt’s stance, deeply suspicious of the Islamist movements throughout the region, fears that Syria’s descent into chaos will give extremists, such as IS and the Al-Nusra Front, a chance to fill the vacuum following Al-Assad’s fall.
That is not what Saudi Arabia believes or wants. Indeed, Riyadh is hosting its own conference for the Syrian opposition groups, with radical Islamist groups including the Al-Nusra Front reportedly invited, later this month in order to discuss plans to escalate military operations against Damascus and prepare for the post Al-Assad era.
Egypt might not succeed in its ultimate goal in its mediation to resolve such a complex situation, but its invitation to the Syrian groups to come to Cairo signals its determination to pursue a more proactive foreign policy, while carefully seeking to avoid any immediate confrontation, particularly with a key financial backer like Saudi Arabia.
Because of the threat that IS and the Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups may be the alternative to the Al-Assad regime, Syria is a matter of national security for Egypt. If Egypt does not act now, who will.

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 4, 2015

Supporting Arab interests

Supporting Arab interests

Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is part of a carefully calibrated regional strategy, writes Salah Nasrawi

When scholars at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies held a panel discussion on the turmoil in the Middle East and its implications for Egypt’s national security last week, one item was missing from the agenda: Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

Even after leading sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim intervened to ask the panelists at the opening session if they expected President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to fulfil his oft-stated promise to help defend Egypt’s Gulf allies, none of the five distinguished experts on the podium was prepared to venture an answer.

“We will leave your question to be answered by the panelists in the next session,” Ali Al-Din Hilal, a prominent political scientist, told Ibrahim. His remark was met with amusement by the audience that had assembled to mark the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the centre’s Arab Strategic Report.

As the ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to plague the Middle East, questions remain over Egypt’s role in the conflict and the extent of its help to its ally Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab military alliance to defeat the Houthis in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has repeatedly warned that the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states is a “red line.” His statement that “it’s only a short distance” to go to defend them has become a catchphrase in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Egypt announced on 26 March that it would join the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, who are backed by forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia regards the Shia Houthi group as a client of Iran, which the kingdom accuses of trying to increase its power in the region at the expense of the Arab countries.

Last week, Egypt extended by three months the authorisation for its military deployment outside the country but did not specify whether the renewed mandate could see Cairo deploy ground troops in Yemen to fight the Houthis.

Numerous media reports have since suggested that Egypt has joined the Saudi-led coalition in bombing the Houthis and has been sending naval vessels to the Yemeni coast. Some mainstream media outlets in the US have even speculated that Egypt could lead a ground operation in Yemen after the current air strikes campaign weakens the Houthis.

But there has been no evidence of Egyptians fighting alongside the Saudis in the war in Yemen, or of Egypt having plans underway to participate in a massive ground operation.

The Egyptian leadership continues to keep people guessing about its military moves in Yemen, while a debate goes on about whether Egypt should be partnering with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who have provided billions of dollars in aid to help boost its ailing economy.

Egypt cannot spend time worrying about the repercussions of the conflict in Yemen and Iran’s expansionism in the region, which could have repercussions in the rest of the Middle East with a major impact on its regional role and security.

But it is critical that Egypt’s response to the Yemeni conflict and the wider implications of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation are carefully measured. Egypt must weigh its close relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against its vital interests in the region.

Like other Arab nations not directly involved in the conflict in Yemen, the war poses a regional dilemma for Egypt. Because of the intense polarisation the conflict has caused, Egypt may have hoped it had never happened.

Many in Egypt worry that the country’s participation in the war, especially if this were to take the form of ground battles, could further entangle it in the sectarian conflict that is spreading in the Middle East, fuelled by proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A considerable part of the debate on Egypt’s role in the current crisis has been about whether Egypt’s participation could turn into “another Vietnam,” using the phrase to compare Egypt’s costly foray into Yemen in 1964-1967 to the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Many pundits who evoke the Yemen War in the 1960s argue that Egypt is not eager to enter into another military intervention in Yemen. The earlier war was a disaster for the country, and some 26,000 Egyptian soldiers died fighting Saudi-backed royalists.

However, this could be a false comparison since apart from the fact that the Yemen conflict in the 1960s featured a variety of factors that belonged to its specific historical and political context, today’s war in Yemen is not about the strategy for Egypt’s interventions abroad.

Instead, the war in Yemen started just as Egypt had embarked on a defensive project to assemble a joint Arab force to help it in its fight against terrorism both in the restive Sinai Peninsula and in lawless Libya on its western border.

The war in Yemen has clearly demonstrated the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to tackle such challenges and be ready to help Egypt fight terror groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group, which has declared its presence in Sinai and Libya.

Aside from shifting the focus from combating terrorism to fighting the Shia Houthis, Egypt’s other concern is that the war in Yemen will create a realignment that could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s other domestic foe, to resurface as a regional political force and thus threaten Egypt’s security.

Since the war on the Houthis started, reports have circulated that Saudi Arabia has been in contact with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party in an attempt to position it as a grassroots political organisation that would be empowered in post-war Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the other major ally in the war against the Houthis, are also reportedly in contact with Egyptian Brotherhood leaders and the movement’s branches in other countries. If true, the move would be seen as an attempt to put pressure on Cairo to bring about reconciliation with the group, which was banned in Egypt after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader.

The Yemen debate also comes at a time when Egypt is supporting a political settlement in Syria that does not include Sunni militants such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, who are widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. The rise of the Islamists in post-Al-Assad Syria could spell an extremist threat to Egypt.

Saudi Arabia’s newfound robust approach to regional conflicts represents a daunting challenge to Egypt. The war the kingdom has initiated in Yemen and its all-out confrontation with Iran indicate that Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as an increasingly influential player in the region.

But many Egyptians are worried about what sort of power Saudi Arabia aspires to be. Will it use its influence to promote shared stability and prosperity, or will it seek to unilaterally alter the regional status quo?

Egypt has long been a cornerstone of the regional order, and any attempt to alter the geopolitical equation without Cairo being consulted and involved could be at Egypt’s expense as a key regional actor.

The notion that Egypt could be taken for granted or seduced by financial assistance will then be seen as little more than wishful thinking.

It is for such reasons that Cairo’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen is not a mystery. While it is opposing Iran’s increasing influence and rejecting its proxy wars in the region, Egypt has also resisted a rush to a large-scale military confrontation in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has bluntly declared that “the Egyptian army is for Egypt,” which can only be interpreted as meaning a rejection of the idea of putting Egyptian boots on the ground in a theatre where Egyptian interests are not directly implicated.

Egypt has sensibly invited Yemeni and Syrian political groups for talks in Cairo in an attempt to resolve the conflicts in these two embattled Arab countries.

This action, which enjoys the support of most Arab countries and of the international community, underlines the need to maintain the long-term interest of the Arabs and to resist the temptation to use short-term military muscle.

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

Beyond Al-Jazeera

Beyond Al-Jazeera

The Cairo-Doha dispute goes much deeper than the anti-Egyptian media blitz being orchestrated by Qatar, writes Salah Nasrawi

The day a Cairo court ordered two Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to be released on bail, the Qatar-owned network aired secretly taped recordings of conversations between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his aides in which he purportedly expressed contempt for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers.

The message could not have been missed: Doha does not seem to be interested in patching up differences with Cairo, and Al-Jazeera will continue its hostile coverage of Egypt, one of the main issues behind soured relations between the two countries.

Furthermore, the leaks, first aired by pro-Muslim Brotherhood television, seemed designed to drive a wedge between Egypt and the Gulf countries which are the main aid providers to Egypt.

Relations between Cairo and Doha deteriorated after the 2013 ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood group was backed by Qatar.

Al-Jazeera has since been broadcasting anti-Al-Sisi propaganda, labelling his takeover a “military coup.”

But what has appeared to be a row over negative television coverage may in fact hide a deeper conflict over a host of domestic and regional issues, in particular Qatar’s support for Islamists whom Egypt considers to be a threat to its security.

Efforts to reconcile Cairo and Doha have stalled as Qatar’s sponsorship of what has been termed the “Political Islam project” has been too much for Egypt to ignore and leave the ball in Qatar’s court.

In November, Al-Sisi tactically gave the nod to an overture by the late Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Qatar after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rapprochement with its troublesome member state.

Egypt has shown pragmatism by not staying aloof from its allies in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – which are also its main financial backers.

But Egypt, familiar with the region’s chessboard, has seemed to be holding back and playing a waiting game. It has shown no sign of starting to mend fences with Qatar until the Gulf emirate changes what Cairo interprets as its hostile policies.

Egypt’s dispute with Qatar goes beyond Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the platform for anti-Al-Sisi propaganda which Al-Jazeera and other Qatar-owned media outlets have been giving to the group.

Cairo’s grievances against Doha include its role in building a broader Egyptian opposition movement to Al-Sisi and targeting its ailing economy by withdrawing loans and deposits provided to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

The two countries have also been locked in a political standoff over a series of regional disputes in Gaza, Libya, Syria and Sudan, conflicts that Egypt considers as having a direct impact on its stability.

Egypt believes that the Palestinian Hamas movement, backed and funded by Qatar, shares a large part of the blame for militant attacks in Sinai. Cairo says that militants from Hamas-run Gaza have been helping jihadist groups in Sinai, such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which is linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

The terror group is responsible for attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Peninsula and it may be seeking targets in Egypt’s mainland.

Another major point of contention with Qatar is Libya. Egypt feels there is a danger to its security from its western neighbour where Islamist extremists and Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias supported by Qatar are fighting a government that is recognised by Egypt and the international community.

On Sunday, a Libyan terror group affiliated to IS said it had beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working in Libya. Many Egyptians were angered by Al-Jazeera for hosting Al-Sisi’s opponents who have exploited the tragedy to blame the government for the massacre and not its perpetrators.

There is also Sudan, Egypt’s southern backyard, which is ruled by Islamists who have close ties with Qatar. Though Cairo and Khartoum continue to maintain working relations, Egypt remains wary of Sudan’s close ties with the Gulf state.

In November the Khartoum government signed a military cooperation pact with Doha that Egypt fears will be used to advance the Qatari agenda.

Egypt also has stakes in Syria where Qatar has influence over some of the Islamist extremist groups which are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Egypt fears both the rise of Islamists in Iraq and Syria and the influx of jihadists to join the insurgency in Sinai.

Another case in point is Turkey whose ties with Egypt have been strained since the ouster of Morsi. Cairo accuses Ankara of forming an alliance with Doha in a bid to destabilise Egypt through support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

All this indicates that a breakthrough in ties with Qatar will have to come on Egyptian terms. In the words of Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, “what is required is for Qatar’s policies to be supportive of Egypt and its national security and to avoid anything that leads to destabilising Egypt.”

The problem is that no one can be certain that Qatar is prepared to make the required changes in its foreign policy that Egypt takes to be a source of instability.

Touted as backing the Islamists, Qatar’s current strategy poses a serious threat to Al-Sisi’s drive to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood.

In broader terms, in its high-stakes regional game Qatar is challenging Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and one of the region’s powerhouses.

There is an increasing understanding in Egypt that Qatar is trying to use its huge hydrocarbon-generated wealth and international connections to undermine Egypt’s efforts to restore its role as a major regional player, weakened by the turmoil after the 25 January Revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

But even if the mood in Cairo looks to be calm and diplomatic relations with Doha remain normal, Egypt seems to have options on the table.

Last month, Egypt returned a US$2 billion Qatari deposit to Doha after negotiations to convert the money into bonds failed. It plans to return a further $500 million, the rest of the billions extended to Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, as a sign of refusing to be intimidated by Qatari money.

Al-Sisi had refused to use his authority to pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists and gave the law due process to decide their fate, something which denied Qatar the opportunity to claim that it had exercised pressure on Egypt to secure their release.

An Egyptian court, meanwhile, is continuing the trial of the deposed former president and another 10 men on charges of espionage and leaking secret documents, including military and security files, to Qatar while in office.

Though no details about the documents have been made public by prosecutors, questions have been raised as to whether they included the recordings used by Al-Jazeera.