Omphalos

Middle East Ticker: Egypt Nears Its Boiling Point, Mosul Offensive Enters Second Week, and Two More Ceasefires Collapse

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 10:10 AM

The End of Sisi’s Authoritarian Honeymoon

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi entered office in June 2014, he did so riding a groundswell of support. Just a month into his presidency, he went ahead with the unpopular measure of slashing fuel subsidies, a pragmatic but polarizing move only made possible by his popularity. In addition to taking this prudent measure, he also promoted a series of expensive policies that did little to improve the country’s economic straits, including the costly project to expand the Suez Canal—which seemed intended to draw comparisons to Nasser’s Aswan Dam project rather than to bring any tangible benefits. One of his few unqualified successes—for himself, at least—has been his efficient consolidation of power. Just last week, Reuters reported that the Egyptian government has carried out a dedicated campaign against judges who signed a July 2013 letter in support of a return to “constitutional legitimacy” after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Now, with Egypt still trying to secure funding to support a $12-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Sisi’s honeymoon has definitively ended.

“By almost every measure, conditions in Egypt are worse now than prior to the revolution,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook wrote last week for Foreign Affairs. “Economic growth remains stagnant. Egypt’s reserves of foreign currency have dwindled to perilous levels: in July they dropped beneath $16 billion, their lowest level in almost a year and a half and barely enough to cover three months of imports. The Egyptian pound has collapsed, and the government has begun rationing dollars.” Sisi also pushed through a new value-added tax last month which, despite provisions that are supposed to protect the country’s most impoverished residents, is anticipated to hit poor families the hardest, according to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. In addition to the new tax, Egypt is undergoing a severe shortage of sugar and other staple goods; last month, the country’s failure to import wheat sparked fears of an impending bread crisis, and Egyptians may be on the brink of a fuel shortage after Saudi Arabia cut off its supply of oil-based aid two weeks ago.

Sisi will not be able to ride his popularity through the current crisis. A constant thread in the reporting from Cairo is the palpable frustration with Sisi’s government. “We watch TV and you would think Cairo is Vienna, but go to the street and it is Somalia’s cousin,” a tuk-tuk driver named Moustafa Abdou told a news station in an interview that went viral last week. “You go spend untold billions on mega-projects and our education is at the lowest level possible?" The video was quickly deleted but prompted people to tweet their dissatisfaction with the hashtag #WhatHasSisiDoneForUs? Another frustrated Egyptian man told the Washington Post, “People here do not care who is president...They only care that they can work and profit under whomever is in power. I used to make much more money three years ago.” The anger on Egyptian streets goes beyond just words. One man, Ashraf Shahin, immolated himself in Alexandria, shouting at bystanders that he couldn’t afford to eat; the video of that incident also went viral. (He died this past Sunday from his burns.)

Shahin has already drawn comparisons to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation was a catalyst for the Arab Spring. Even before he set himself on fire, activists had announced plans to hold protests against the government on November 11. "This president is an employee like any other…we are tired…we have lost our breath…you want to leave peacefully leave, if not we will force you,” one of the activists, Shershoub Hamam, says in a recent YouTube video. “Our revolution demanded justice, freedom and bread and we've got none of it.” Sisi’s government has come down hard on protesters before: just earlier this year, authorities arrested nearly 400 people in anticipation of planned protests in April—and it is likely to do so again in the next few weeks.

Conflict and Competition in the Mosul Offensive

The first week of the offensive to push the Islamic State out of Mosul saw some swift gains but was also marked by competition within the coalition. Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi military forces traded accusations about each slowing the other down, and tensions between Baghdad and Ankara about the role for Turkish forces (which the Ticker has covered before) have continued.

Within hours of the start of the offensive, peshmerga forces were able to seize 20 towns in the outlying countryside near Mosul, and soon after, Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces began advancing from the southeast. But despite officials saying that the offensive was proceeding ahead of schedule, both groups expressed frustration with the pace of the advance. One Iraqi commander vented to the Washington Post that he was “waiting for the peshmerga to finish their job.” Since the initial blitz early last week, the advance has slowed as troops have encountered more traps, IEDs, and ambushes. Sophia Jones, a reporter for the Huffington Post, spoke to an Iraqi lieutenant colonel who was defusing IEDs with a pair of pliers and minimal protective gear. He told her that the Islamic State is leaving bombs on roads, over doorways, and in Qurans. Hours after the interview, he was killed when a bomb detonated while he was trying dismantle it. The toll from the fighting also includes a U.S. soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb.

More dangerous than the tense working relationship between the peshmerga and the Iraqi military is the continuing strain on the Turkish-Iraqi relationship over the Mosul offensive. The United States is trying to maintain cooperation between the two governments, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said last week that an agreement had been reached “in principle” that balances “respect for the sovereignty of Iraq” and “respect also for Turkey’s historic role in the region.” But that tentative arrangement may not hold. On Monday, Iran voiced its support for the Iraqi government, saying that Turkey should get permission from Baghdad to participate in the Mosul offensive. Meanwhile, in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkish forces are already deeply involved in the drive to Mosul, shelling Islamic State positions and supporting local forces. "There are also four F-16 fighters jets on standby for an air operation as part of the international coalition, ready for airstrikes. How they are deployed will depend on decisions by members of the coalition and our military,” he said. Today, he doubled down, saying that Turkey is “ready to use all our resources including a ground operation” to address any threat it perceives in Iraq.

The Islamic State struck back over the weekend. On Friday, approximately 100 Islamic State fighters attacked the city of Kirkuk, southeast of Mosul along the border of Iraq’s Kurdish region. The attack, conducted by a combination of invading militants and terror cells hiding in the city, struck police buildings and a power station before being cornered in a hotel. At least 99 civilians and Iraqi security forces were killed in the three-day attack. The local Iraqi governor said Monday that, after fighting through the weekend, security has been restored in the city and that at least 74 militants had been killed. Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted on Twitter that experts had been anticipating an attack on Kirkuk and that the assault is similar to a previous coordinated wave of attacks that took place in January 2015.

Another Ceasefire Ends in Aleppo...

Assad regime forces are on the offensive again in Aleppo this week. On Monday, pro-regime troops seized the hilltop in Bazo, a strategic position from which they have begun bombarding rebel districts in the city’s east. The regime advance follows the expiration of the humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect on Thursday. Russia said it would suspend airstrikes from 8 AM to 7 PM and open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians and surrendering rebels to leave besieged areas, but many Aleppo residents distrusted the offer and no individuals fled the city during the ceasefire, according to reports. The Russian government said on Saturday that it was ending the truce after just two days and would not consider renewing the ceasefire. However, despite reports of renewed airstrikes on Saturday and Tuesday, today Russia denied that it had resumed its air campaign and said humanitarian corridors to east Aleppo remain open. But even during the ceasefire, those routes did not meet U.N. security standards, and on Monday the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator announced they would have to abandon the planned evacuation of people in need of medical attention that had been scheduled for last week.

...And Another Ceasefires Collapses in Yemen

In Yemen, another attempted ceasefire never really materialized. The truce nominally entered force on Wednesday night and was slated to last for three days, but was marred by numerous violations of the agreement. Sanaa saw its first night without airstrikes in nearly three months, but elsewhere Saudi officials reported skirmishes and missile launches along the Saudi-Yemeni border. By Saturday, the last day of the ceasefire, Saudi forces reported that Houthi attacks had escalated to “a sustained Houthi ground attack” and Saudi jets had responded with airstrikes, Reuters reports. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned during the implementation of the ceasefire that "it is essential that the Houthis, who have said they will support this ceasefire, live by it” and that “breaches of this put at risk the entire possibility of getting back to talks.” Despite efforts by U.N. Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to extend the ceasefire, there does not appear to be any initiative on either side to try again.

As Laura Kasinof writes in a recent article for Slate, the failed ceasefire comes at a difficult time. The United States, which has supported the Saudi intervention, is increasingly frustrated by Riyadh’s conduct of the war. But despite the stalemate, both sides remain committed to the bloody conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people so far. Kasinof writes, “It seems that Saudi Arabia has resigned to try to smoke out the rebels in control of Sanaa. If northern Yemen is desperate and starving enough, maybe Saleh and the Houthis will concede. Yet so far, the Houthi-Saleh alliance has only dug in further because, true to any war of personalities, it has become a matter of pride.”