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Open Letter on Egypt to the UK Prime Minister
Open Letter on Egypt to the UK Prime Minister
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

Open Letter on Egypt to the UK Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister,

Tomorrow you will receive President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt at Downing Street. Few would deny the importance of maintaining contact with Egypt’s leadership, in light of the range of interests that the UK has with Egypt and the significant security threats emanating from the Middle East. But it would be incompatible with British and European interests and values to give President Sisi the endorsement of a Downing Street welcome without also making clear that Egypt’s current direction raises serious concerns. You should take this opportunity to press Mr Sisi to ensure respect for the rule of law and human rights, and call on him to free more prisoners detained illegally or due to unjust laws.

In May of this year, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said that Britain looked to Egyptian authorities “to apply the rule of law consistently in line with international standards, and to protect the political and legal rights of all Egyptians as the basis for the country’s future stability”. It is hard to deny that Egypt is falling short of these standards. In the last few years, tens of thousands of people have been arrested, often for nothing more than non-violent protest and political dissent; hundreds have been sentenced to death after mass trials that do not meet recognised standards of due process.

There is strong evidence that the closing of space for legitimate political activity and freedom of expression is pushing some moderate opponents of the regime toward radicalisation and violence. The result of political repression is disillusionment with the political process, illustrated by the very low turnout in the current parliamentary elections, with worrying implications for Egypt’s stability.

At a time when President Sisi is seeking to use his interaction with foreign leaders to project an image of political legitimacy, you have an opportunity to show that Britain’s endorsement is not unconditional. You should make clear that Britain believes that an end to the policy of political repression is essential to restore the rule of law in Egypt and reverse the drift toward greater instability. In particular you should press President Sisi to take steps to release or grant amnesties to those people who remain in prison for political offences or for breach of the anti-protest law. In September, Mr Sisi released 100 prisoners ahead of his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York. He should be pressed to do more to correct the authoritarian drift of the last two years.

Such an approach would contribute to encouraging Egypt toward a path that offers the best hope for its future development, as well as being most consistent with the objectives that Britain and the EU more widely seek to fulfil in this important relationship.

uropean Working Group on Egypt (EWGE)

The group is co-chaired by Anthony Dworkin, from European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Other members are:

  • Rasmus Alenius Boserup, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).
  • Haizam Amirah Fernández, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE).
  • Koert Debeuf, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
  • Dina Fakoussa, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
  • Stéphane Lacroix, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po (CERI).
  • Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
  • Arnold Luethold, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF).
  • Charles Powell, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE).
  • Stephan Roll, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
  • Patrycja Sasnal, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).
  • Nathalie Tocci, Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI).
  • Richard Youngs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

The EWGE has been endorsed by the following prominent Europeans:

  • Emma Bonino, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy.
  • Gunilla Carlsson, former Minister for International Development Cooperation, Sweden.
  • Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under Secretary General for UN Peacekeeping Operations.
  • Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament.
A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.