“Al-Shebab,” said my student Jerry early in the fall 2010 semester. “We’re calling our small group al-Shebab. It means ‘The Youth.’” From his name alone, I wouldn’t have guessed his background, but he was proud of his family’s Egyptian roots and had convinced his classmates to give their group an Arabic name.
As usually happens when the semester ends and my dozens of students scatter, Jerry and I lost touch. The following April, however, we ran into each other at a rally organized by students at my university to support the Arab Spring. Like many others around the world, I’d watched transfixed as brave unarmed civilians faced down riot police on the bridges leading to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I’d celebrated on February 11, 2011, when the corrupt and authoritarian Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned as the military took control of that country.
Jerry’s eyes sparkled when he saw me. “Isn’t it amazing?” he shouted. Yes, it was amazing… until it wasn’t.
This spring, eight years later, there has been a new set of popular uprisings in northern Africa, from Algeria to Morocco, to Sudan. Let’s hope they have more lasting success than Egypt’s Arab Spring.
It’s All About the Military
The victory over Hosni Mubarak was indeed amazing, perhaps too amazing to last, since the real arbiter of events in Egypt was then, and continues to be, its military. In the parliamentary elections of November 2011, the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood took almost half that body’sseats. In June 2012, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became the country’s first elected president, winning a runoff race with just under 52% of the vote.
That August, Morsi made the move that would eventually doom him, replacing his defense minister with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He also quickly turned in an increasingly autocratic direction, issuing decrees granting himself more power and proposing a new constitution that would do the same (which was approved by more than 60% of the voters in a low-turnout referendum).
By June 2013, many Egyptians were frustrated both with Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the stagnation of the economy. Once again, millions of people gathered in Cairo, this time to call for his removal, at which point the military pushed him out, installing the head of the constitutional court, Adly Mansour, as interim president. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded with violent attacks, burning police stations and government buildings. The government repression that followed was fierce enough that, in October 2013, the Obama administration suspended the further transfer of U.S. military equipment to Egypt. Eventually, new elections were held and, in May 2014, Morsi’s Defense Minister, el-Sisi, won the presidency with a suspicious 96.9% of the vote. By then, the Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed and would soon be declared a terrorist organization.
In April of this year, el-Sisi, running essentially unopposed, was reelected. Never one to slight an authoritarian ruler, President Trump immediately called to congratulate him and then invited him to the White House to discuss “robust military, economic, and counterterrorism cooperation” between the two countries. A few weeks later, in a “snap referendum,” the Egyptian constitution was altered to allow el-Sisi to retain the presidency until at least 2030 — essentially, that is, for life. That move also cemented the country’s military, long its dominant economic power, as its sole political power, too.
Trump Goes A-Wooing in the Middle East and North Africa
From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the American president who “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has rarely met an autocrat he didn’t take to (though his bromance with Kim may finally be souring). So, it’s no surprise that el-Sisi’s trip to Washington was a success and his country is now on course to remain the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Ninety-four percent of that aid goes to “peace and security” — in other words, to Egypt’s military and police.
Trump is, however, distinctly polyamorous when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) autocratic types, as his long-standing love affair with Israel’s recently reelected prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, indicates. Given Trump’s own history of racism, Bibi’s embrace of Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State” law undoubtedly only turned up the heat on their relationship. This infamous legislation moves Israel further in the direction of apartheid. It legalizes Jewish-only communities, demotes Arabic from its status as an official language, and states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”
While the world waits less than breathlessly for Jared Kushner’s long-promised Israel-Palestine peace plan, President Trump keeps gift-wrapping pieces of disputed territory and handing them directly to Bibi in his own spontaneous version of an Israel First peace plan. In December 2017 came the announcement of his administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump claimed that “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would advance the peace process and make a permanent status agreement between the two sides easier.” Maybe he saw this as a move towards peace because it unilaterally took the ultimate status of Jerusalem, one of the pieces in any such plan, off the Israeli-Palestinian playing board.
Next up came the Golan Heights, a slice of territory on Syria’s western border, captured by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel and Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. In 1981, Israel passed a law annexing the area, an act rejected by the U.N. Security Council, whose resolution stated that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.” As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States joined that unanimous vote. Nonetheless, this spring, just before a very close Israeli election, President Trump reversed longstanding policy and announced his recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Heights. Happy Birthday, Bibi.
In the days before the election, Netanyahu then doubled down on annexation, proclaiming his intention to make Jewish settlements on the West Bank a permanent part of Israel along with the Golan Heights. In so doing, he’ll be fulfilling Ariel Sharon’s decades-old boast about Israel’s intentions for the Palestinians:
“We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
Meanwhile, Trump seems to have developed a new crush, this time on a Libyan military figure the New York Times calls a “would-be strongman”: 75-year-old self-styled “Field Marshal” Khalifa Hifter. Based in the eastern part of Libya, where he has been aligned with one of that divided land’s several rival governments, Hifter, a former CIA asset, launched an attack on the capital, Tripoli, on April 5th. Though not successful so far, his assault has already caused hundreds of deaths, with more likely to follow.
A Mediterranean port in the northwestern corner of the country, Tripoli houses Libya’s internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, which doesn’t actually do much governing. Ever since the Obama administration and NATO intervened to topple autocrat Muammar al-Gaddafi, power in Libya has been divided among multiple militias, including Hifter’s military, and Islamist groups like ISIS.
When the field marshal attacked Tripoli, the initial Trump administration response was swift and negative. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement indicating the opposition of “the administration at the highest levels,” announcing that“we oppose the military offensive.” He urged Hifter to immediately “halt… these military operations.” His reaction accorded with that of “most Western governments and the United Nations,” which, according to the New York Times, “have also condemned the attack and demanded a retreat.”