Trump’s legacy in Yemen puts millions at risk of starvation

If US President Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by many scandals it is likely that his administration’s decision in January 12 to designate Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis) in Yemen, a terrorist organisation will have repercussions far beyond its mandate. 

President Trump’s final words on Yemen are bound to echo far into President Joe Biden’s presidency – regardless of its merit and/or justification. As it is often the case political decisions create ground realities detached from the intent of its makers. As for us we now will have to contend with a situation which, for better or for worse, is now factual.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the rationale of the move was to hold the Houthis accountable for cross-border attacks and beyond that, thwart Iran’s alleged influence in North Yemen. “The designations are intended to hold Ansar Allah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping,” Mr Pompeo said.

“The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours,” he added in comments to the press on January 10. 

Three Houthi leaders – Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abdul Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim – have now be listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, a move, needless to say that infuriated the Houthis. 

Sana’a repartée was as quick as it was belligerent. “America is the source of terrorism, the Trump administration’s policy is terrorist, and its actions are terrorist. It does not matter to the Yemeni people, as it is complicit in killing and starving them,” Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi tweeted on January 11, a day after Mr Pompeo made then-President Trump’s decision public.

Beyond this new political stand-off lies a people in jeopardy, facing death by starvation. Caught in the crossfire of Washington’s ire towards Tehran and its regional allies, North Yemen now faces intense isolation – including its ability to access vital humanitarian aid.

As senior United Nations officials were quick to point out, America’s move will complicate the delivery of essential aid in large parts of the country. With more than two third of North Yemen’s population in need of urgent food assistance, political sanctions will de facto translate into a death sentence for millions of innocent civilians.

In December last year United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres already warned that “Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.”

Yemen today finds itself in a much more precarious situation – a reality which has not escaped British officials.

The Labour party in the UK added its voice to the concerns on Sunday, saying the expected move against the Houthis, whom Iran supports in Yemen, would result in aid being unable to reach much of the country’s north. The shadow minister for international development, Anna McMorrin, said this would deprive millions of people who had no choice but to remain under Houthi control of much-needed assistance.

In a letter to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, the shadow minister for international development Anna McMorrin, called on the UK not to follow the US’s lead.

“We are concerned that a blanket definition for the Houthis would create a near insurmountable hurdle to the delivery of essential humanitarian relief, with those providing material relief or economic support to agencies and multilateral programmes at risk of legal or financial sanctions … Humanitarian organisations would also be denied practical contact with much of the Houthis’ administrative infrastructure and would be barred from using local civilian contractors to deliver programmes,” she writes.

Aid organizations have said that, in effect, the ruling would make their work impossible to carry out, with supply lines and access already at constant risk of constant disruption. Amanda Cantanzano, senior director for International Programs Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, told ABC News in an interview this January  that the IRC is “outraged by the decision.”

“We see it as something that will create barriers such that it will be nearly impossible for us to effectively and efficiently deliver aid to those in need. And that would be a crisis anywhere. But in Yemen, it is a catastrophe,” she notes.

As things stand about 80 percent of Yemen’s total population relies on humanitarian aid to survive, and fundraising efforts have barely met half the required donations leading aid groups, including Unicef, have benchmarked. The United States of America’s decision to designate Ansar Allah a terror organisation will only exacerbate an already suffocating reality, without any guarantee it will facilitate a peaceful resolution to Yemen’s deepening political crisis.

The Sword of Damocles

As the Syrian civil war enters its second decade in 2021, what started as a peaceful uprising against the political administration in Syria has developed into a power struggle amongst a myriad of foreign powers in the geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East.  Syrians protested in the wake of the Arab Spring a few months after it took hold in late 2010 across the Arab states.  The protests were met with force, violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war.  Ten years on, eleven million Syrians are displaced, both internally and as refugees mainly across Europe and neighbouring countries, whilst Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s President.  However, his power holds sway under a sword of Damocles.  The President has his allies but their allegiance is conditional, and that, like the horse’s hair from which the sword of Damocles hangs, creates an unpredictable situation.

President Assad’s orders to his military to forcibly stop protests before they engulfed the nation in April 2011, came not long after pledges of government and social reforms.  However, Syrians had lost hope in the transformation of the nation from a socialist to a market economy through the government’s tenth five year plan, which started well and should have come to realization in 2010 but had begun to falter.   The demonstrations spiralled into armed confrontation and civil war. 

Syria was provided military support by its longstanding financial ally Iran. Substantive support began with the sending in of a contingent of 4,000 troops in 2013.  There are many reasons for Tehran’s support for Syria, a nation at the cutting edge of the Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. The demographic makeup of Syria is multi faceted and a point of contention. Pre war population statistics are obviously no longer valid and indeed there has in any case not been a credible census in Syria since 1963. However the NCF estimates the pre war population of Syria as being:

Sunni Arab 51% (average of all best estimates 56.5%)
Kurdish 14% (average of all best estimates 12.5%)
Christian 8.5% (average of all best estimates 12% which seems high)
Alawite 14% (average of all best estimates 14%)
Druze 3% (average of all best estimates 3%)
Others e.g. Yazidis, Jews, Turkmans, Shiite 6% (average of all best estimates 2% which seems low)

Certainly if the Kurds are numbered with the Arab Sunnis there is a Sunni majority, whilst President Bashar Al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, regarded (on a very tenuous and scarcely credible basis) by Iran’s leadership as being a sect of Shia-Islam.  Arguably the relationship began as a tactical and strategic partnership, initiated in the 1980s by both governments’ shared contempt for President Saddam Hussein during the Iraq – Iran conflict.  This alliance has been sustained for strategic reasons and perhaps reinforced by a mutual distrust of Israel. Furthermore, geographically Syria is situated on a thoroughfare between Iran and its Lebanese Shi’a militia ally Hizb’Allah. 

Iranian support for Syria has of course also been financial, and has gone beyond mere remittances. Iran has provided the Central Bank of Syria with a $4 billion line of credit.

In the early days of the war, Arab nations including Saudi-Arabia and Qatar provided financial assistance to Syrian rebel fighters.  Israel also provided assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2017 and carried out air strikes, which continue today, with one of the deadliest attacks allegedly killing 57 Syrian and Iranian soldiers last week.  These attacks have escalated in the last few months in the run up to the transition of power in the White House.

Iran’s strategic reasons for retaining President Assad as an ally go way beyond mere personal interest.  A change in strategy for Iran is none the less improbable despite talk of a new “Syrian Karzai”.  Meanwhile for Iran the prospect of brokering peace with anti-Syrian government rebels, who have been in the line of Iranian fire since the infancy of this war is a taller order than supporting the current status quo. 

Despite strong Iranian support, President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels took a new turn at the end of September 2015, when he called on Moscow to help in the fight with the rebels who were gaining strategic control of key towns in Syria.  Some say that this call for help came directly at the request of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, although the Institute for National Strategic Studies reports the Russia’s decision to intervene came prior to General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.  Russia has been a long term ally of Syria. However, Putin’s willingness to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power may be more covetous.  The war in Syria and decisions by other states have provided Putin with an opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of and which has fundamentally shaped his strategy

Russia’s strategy has been described as functional. “It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries.”  Its long-term vision is to become a global power in the region.  To achieve political hegemony, enhancing military bases in the region is critical, and the Syrian War has provided this opportunity. 

Russia is keen to orientate the Middle East towards itself and away from the US, with countries such as Iran this provides a mutual understanding, however re-orientating other regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf States is a greater challenge.  The crevice that Moscow regularly exploits is the sovereignty of leaders over their state, both from “external intervention and internal insurrection” by directly attributing the cause of such violations to the West’s foreign policy, demonstrated by the toppling of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Al-Gaddaffi.  Russia’s opportunity was further enhanced with Trump’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria in October 2019, which is illustrative of the US’s lack of interest in the region, making it easier for President Putin to induce the leaders of the Arab nations to regard him as a safe bet.

War is not a cheap venture through proxies or otherwise, and both Iran and Russia have accumulated a large tab in the course of their interventions.  Iran’s costs are between $600 and $700 million a month and that doesn’t account for the human loss with boots on the ground.  Despite avoiding heavy human casualties, as Moscow’s offensive interventions have predominately been airstrikes, the cost to Moscow comes in at $4 million a day for airstrikes, this doesn’t include the heavy investment in Syria’s Armed Forces in the form of arms and training.  Despite the advantages of the intervention, such as testing new military systems, combat experience and building up its bases, the long term gain for Russia in recouping the financial costs are high.  Both of Syria’s allies are taking a stake in the country’s infrastructure.  An agreement between Damascus and Moscow a few months after the departure of US troops permitted Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas.  Reconstruction deals have also been struck by both countries, although there is contention between them as to how the spoils are shared out.

The longevity of the war in Syria is also taking its toll on those loyal to the President.  With high gains in the initial years of the war, their fortunes have turned.  The Caesar sanctions imposed by the US are crippling Damascus’ financial support network, as they specifically target third-country actors with cross-border business activities with Syria.  With the loss of revenue, President Al-Assad has turned on Syrian loyalists such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was Syria’s richest national with investments in telecoms, real estate and hotels.  Makhlouf expressed his discontent in futile social media posts in May 2020, as the President confidently grappled for the countries assets and unpaid taxes to replenish his coffers

The exploitation of family division has been a feature of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency. That said, in the eyes of some it exposes the pressure that Moscow can apply on Damascus, as Makhlouf was close to Iran and involved in contracts with Iran-affiliated Syrian businessman, a point of discord with Russia.  The family division in fact runs deep as President Bashar Al-Assad has a history of arresting and imprisoning cousins that displease him, though whether it reflects allegiances to Syria’s allies is questionable.  The Syrian military remains strong and confident in its own right. The lead command of the Fourth division is Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother who remains intensely loyal and whose commanders are advised by Tehran.  Whilst the air intelligence affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian army, The Tiger forces, led by the charismatic Suhayl Al-Hassan, have attained elite fighter status and benefit from Russian support.

The impact of not only the Ceasar sanctions, but also sanctions applied to neighbouring Lebanon and Iran by the US are also damaging President Bashar Al-Assad’s cash flow.  This along with the ongoing cost of the war is filtering down to ordinary Syrians loyal to the Syrian government.  The war has caused the Syrian pound to lose 80% of its value, Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries have been destroyed, and the flow of currency coming in from oil exports lost. Eight out of ten people live below the poverty line.  In June 2020, fresh protests by Syrians living under Damascus’ control echoed the protests of 2011.  These Syrians add to the list of those the President is struggling to please, and as a token gesture he fired his Prime Minister Hamid Khamis.

The elections for the Presidency are scheduled for June 2021, and despite the outcome being predictable, a final victory in the war in the President’s eyes would solidify his support from those around him.   Syria’s civil war that enters its tenth anniversary in March, has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and drawn in many regional actors.  Now President Assad wishes to gain control of the final rebel strong-hold. 

Idlib a province in the North East of the country remains under Turkish backed-rebel control.  This is the area in which many civilians and rebels have escaped to after their towns came under siege from Syrian’s armed forces, including Eastern Alleppo, Homs, Darraa and East Ghouta.  Despite Syrian government supporters believing they can take military control over the area, there are many factors that make this unfavourable.  Firstly, the area has strong Turkish military support.  Turkey borders northern Syria and hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and their repatriation will be less likely if President Assad takes control of Idlib.

To avoid an escalation, Russia met with Turkey at the Astana framework talks in April 2020 between Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

Another reason why an outright Syrian Army assault on Idlib will not be favoured by Russia, is doing so could arguably contravene UN resolution 2254 that was unanimously agreed upon by all member states including Russia, in December 2015, three months after Russia intervened in the war.  This calls for a ceasefire, constitutional revision, and new free and fair elections. 

Although this UN resolution was described by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, as “Syrian-led, Syrian owned, credible, balanced and inclusive”, President Assad has a large swathe of influence over the committee formed to revise the constitution, as half the members are nominated by the Syrian government providing him with a de facto veto power, and those representing the Western approved factions of the opposition present seem to have little interest in progressing matters.  The ceasefires agreed to date have all collapsed and the most recent agreed through the Astana framework by Turkey, Iran and Russia in March 2020 remains perilous with incidences of violence.  The failure of these ceasefires is because these ceasefires are often used as strategic military tactics to pause the war on one front and to re-align troops to another front that is on the verge of being secured.  However more importantly, these ceasefire agreements do not initiate peace agreement talks that are inclusive of Syrians. 

Arguably further military intervention in Idlib by the Syrian government’s coalition forces would exacerbate the existing humanitarian catastrophe.  There have been grave breaches of humanitarian law throughout this war and they continue, including the targeting of civilians and torture of prisoners by all sides as reported by the UN Human Rights Council.  An assault on Idlib, that homes nearly three million people, over three times its population before the war, would be difficult for the international community to swallow, especially as there are no other humanitarian corridors that could provide protection to the Syrian refugees trapped there.  Conditions in Idlib are dire for the tens of thousands in makeshift camps, with freezing temperatures and flooding, the situation exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19.  Furthermore only one of the two remaining border crossings for humanitarian aid remains open, after the UN resolution 2533 to keep the other, Bab-Al-Salaam open was vetoed by Russia in July 2020.  Although open military assault is not currently being pursued in Idlib, humanitarian assistance is being restricted to maintain a stranglehold over the province. 

To avoid a humanitarian disaster in the region and with the agreed ceasefire in Idlib, the UN needs to use this space to secure a peace deal that sees a political settlement providing Syrians with a voice in their country’s future, and for this security is paramount in Idlib.  Setting up an administration made up of Syrians in Idlib to start negotiating a peace agreement, that includes the repatriation of Syrians could be a next step.  This could only be possible if the UN mandated a protectorate force to provide the necessary security in the region, a force that would be tolerated by the rebel forces.  

However this may not be acceptable to President Al-Assad. The end strategy will need to be carefully negotiated with Iran and Russia, who both share interests, but may reassess their allegiances as President Biden enters the Oval office in the White House. 

Edited by William Morris

Social Media and Trump: a relationship Bound for Disaster?

The following is from a Lebanese contributor to the NCF, Ragheb Malli. The Next Century Foundation prides itself on adhering to the four freedoms: Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, and last but not least, Freedom of Expression. The following article is therefore key in our view. It is a subject which we shall address again later this week:

To the shock of many, last week Trump was banned from major social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, Snapchat and Instagram; with YouTube removing various videos and claiming his channel was treading on eggshells. This of course, following the Capitol Hill incident. Ironic as it maybe, considering his success was a result of creative social media campaigning and where he rallied a huge number of supporters, the idea remains that we -the people – have the power to plug and unplug those who, supposedly, have the ultimate power – or do we? EU commissioner Thierry Breton described the events on Capitol Hill as “the 9/11 moment of social media” and, “the fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’ (President of the United States) loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing” . The ethics behind the silencing of Trump is up for debate, but what is not, is the very fact that social media played an immense power in the rise and fall of Trump. Although what’s even more powerful than social media’s role in his downfall, is his very own use of social media that initiated his downfall to begin with.

There is no denying that Trump was a brilliant, and still is, user of social media. The whole orchestration of his account united huge numbers in a call to “make America great again” – in other words, the elevation of white supremacy – a notion nobody thought would have prevailed. He created phrases and words his followers, as well as ‘haters’, incorporated with their own phrases- “fake news”, “Sad!”, “haters and losers”, always making sure that every character of every tweet was impactful despite all those who called out his lunacy and child-like demeanour. “The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc… I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent, ” said Trump after he won his candidacy. Most notably Twitter was his preferred outlet, most successful outlet and an outlet to finally silence him after years of standing by.

However, much like Franz Reichelt – the tailor who created the first coat parachute and died testing it from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower – Trump destroyed himself in his attempt to further push that which he had already achieved. Most politicians Twitter accounts can be described as grey, yet what made Trump’s account colourful was the very fact that he decided to use Twitter just as ordinary people use Twitter, including spelling errors, long child-like rants, informal tones, outright insult of others and constant repetition of the same conceptions that obviously annoyed him. This was completely negligent as it ended in an assault that got several people killed. Although we all took light of the things he said as if they had no impact; we finally saw that actually they did. Unfortunately, it was too late, yet to prevent any further harm, he was shut down – something this social media genius could have avoided – which ultimately concluded his gradual descent into insanity.
To blame or praise social media in his demise is questionable. However, it would be more accurate to blame the man himself. Yes – we have the power to unplug even the highest of the high, but only if the plug is handed to us.

Ragheb Malli

Don’t Forget the Women of Sudan

Below is the transcript of a recent email exchange between the Next Century Foundation’s Education Officer, Mrs Veronica Morris, and her Member of Parliament, Mr Derek Thomas. Mrs Morris implored Mr Thomas to consider offering asylum to Sudanese refugees in light of the horrific accounts of what these people are going through. Both Mrs Morris’ original email and Mr Thomas’ response are transcribed below. We felt they might be of interest:

Dear Derek Thomas,

I am one of your constituents. I was simply horrified to hear of what is happening to the ladies in both South Sudan and the Darfur region of Sudan. It is not even safe for them to go outside in case they are kidnapped or raped. And a colleague of mine has been there and she says what is happening to those ladies is unimaginable. Now we live in a lovely part of the country. Is there any chance of letting some Sudanese refugees come as asylum seekers to this area? I think it would be great for the country to do something like that. This friend said that up to 1,500 women get raped every week.

The Penzance based Next Century Foundation that we work with had an interesting meeting about Sudan and that really opened our eyes to what was going on there and that forgotten part of the world really needs help because nobody talks about Sudan at all.

Another problem is the international banking sanctions against Sudan proper. There is no real hope for the women of Darfur unless those sanctions are lifted because there will never be development. That area really needs development so I would ask for that.

Yours sincerely

Mrs Veronica Morris

_________________________________________________________

Mr Thomas responded:

Dear Veronica,

Thank you for your email regarding the plight of those in South Sudan and the ongoing refugee crisis. I can only apologise for my delayed response.

I too am horrified by the sickening accounts of the brutal disregard for human rights being displayed in South Sudan, especially toward women, as you rightly raise. I am heartened that in the 18 months since Omar al-Bashir was removed from leadership, Sudan has been set on a good trajectory. Progress is never as fast or as complete as we would like, but the trajectory is solid. Some of the legislative changes brought in so far to end the oppressive legislation of the Bashir era are world class in their scope. I will draw your attention to the fact that female genital mutilation has now been criminalised across the country and the UK was instrumental in funding programmes to help women speak out against this practice on behalf of their daughters. Women have also been given the right to travel abroad with their children without producing proof of permission from their husbands. Whilst these seem like small steps to those of us in more privileged positions, they are giant for places like Sudan where basic human rights have been denied for many years. 

In June of this year the Government committed to pledge £150 million to help the economy, including £75 million of bilateral support and £80 million for the World Bank and IMF’s work on economic reforms. This bilateral support covers not only vital humanitarian assistance but vital funding for health, clean water, media freedom, social programmes, new infrastructure, Government reforms, and, in addition, the coronavirus response.

I appreciate the growing concerns around the international sanctions imposed on Sudan these were put in place, appropriately, because of previous state sponsored terrorism. However, this new civilian-led Government led by Prime Minister Hamdok has taken steps to agree reparations. Sudan has been greatly hampered by being on the United States state sponsor of terrorism list, and I am delighted to inform you that as of December 14th that has been rescinded. (https://www.state.gov/sudans-state-sponsor-of-terrorism-designation-rescinded/). With this movement from the US, Sudan is in a much better place to attract global investment and move toward the development you are asking for. 

Now to your call for increased Asylum support in Cornwall. The Government has committed for 2020/21 for 5000 global refugees to come into the UK. This extends the previous Vulnerable Persons Scheme working in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to wider geographical areas to meet more need. The Government has already highlighted Africa – particularly Sudan, the Congo, and Somalia as having the highest need and work is being done to attempt to meet it. The Government is also committed to expanding this work with local communities. It may be helpful to reach out to Cornwall Council resettlement support (RefugeeHelp@cornwall.gov.uk) who are in the best place to answer your questions. In principle I welcome the desire to help these people on a more personal level and will be seeking further advice on what we can do here in this constituency.
Thank you for raising this with me.
 Yours sincerely,

Derek Thomas MP
For West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (St Ives)

Iran’s Detention of Foreigners is doing them No Favours

On Monday 4th January, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi in the Straits of Hormuz and detained its crewmembers for allegedly violating international pollution rules. The tanker’s parent company, DM Shipping, has rejected these claims and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry states that no technical evidence has been presented which suggests the vessel was in breach of any pollution law. This development comes after months of tension between Iran and South Korea, arising from the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian funds by South Korean banks since September 2019. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has dismissed any suggestions that this seizure is a form of hostage-taking, but Iran’s recent track record contradicts this denial.

Just two months ago, British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from prison after being arrested in September 2018 on espionage charges. She denied these charges and no evidence was presented by Iran to support them, leading to the Australian government labelling the charges as “baseless and politically motivated”. Indeed, Moore-Gilbert’s release was only achieved through a prisoner swap for three Iranian prisoners held in Thailand, of whom two were convicted in connection with the 2012 Bangkok bombings. Politics, then, does seem to have been the motivation behind the detention of Moore-Gilbert.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s detention is not the only case of Iran detaining a foreigner with the apparent aim of exchanging them for another prisoner. US citizens Michael White and Wang Xiyue were both separately detained on allegedly spurious evidence and were subsequently exchanged in prisoner swaps for Iranian scientists Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani (themselves detained in America on seemingly spurious evidence). Moreover, even before the seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi, it seems Iran had a record of detaining foreign nationals with financial goals in mind. Though claims that Iranian-British dual-national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ongoing detention is linked with an unpaid £400 million debt that Britain has owed Iran since the 1970s are presumably false.

The wealth of evidence suggests, then, that Iran has been systematically detaining dual-nationals and foreigners as leverage, either for prisoner swaps or financial disputes. This practice has continued for years and it seems the reason Iran persists with it is because, on the surface, it appears to work. Iran almost always gets what it wants in exchange for the release of a prisoner, and when its stock of foreign detainees runs low it can simply arrest more on charges of espionage, thus repeating the cycle. The fact that Western countries are presumed to be acting in similar arbitrary fashion (i.e. the Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani detentions by the USA, neither of whom were ever convicted of any crime) is really no excuse. Iran must be aware that it stands to lose more than it stands to gain from these actions.

Belgium has already refused to cooperate with Iran in an instance of what they describe as blackmail. Last November the Iranian judiciary told Swedish-Iranian Ahmadreza Djalali that his death sentence for espionage would be carried out imminently. He alledges he was tortured to extract a confession. The Iranian-born Swede worked in Brussels and this announcement was probably an effort to force a prisoner swap with Belgium for diplomat Assadollah Assadi. Brussels, however, continued with its prosecution of Assadi and warned that Djalali’s death would result in an immediate severance of relations between Belgium and Iran. At the time of writing, Djalali is thought to still be alive and in prison.

While Iran continues to be under enormous pressure from US sanctions, it is becoming clear that Iran cannot afford to sever the relations it still has with the West, and therefore their threats no longer come from the perceived position of strength that they used to. These arrests, then, will be less likely to succeed in the future, while continuing to deter tourists from visiting Iran. Crucially, if this practise continues it will serve to further alienate Iran from the international community. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and make real progress in its relations with the wider global community, it needs to rethink its anti-diplomatic policies, starting with its detention of foreign nationals for leverage.

UN Written Statement – Libya

The following is the draft of a written statement to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It has been prepared by Mr Mohamed Fortia, NCF’s Lead Analyst on Libyan Affairs. We welcome your feedback or comment.

With the recent UN led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) showing signs of progress towards rapprochement between the conflicting sides, the State of Libya seems to have a new chance at long-lasting peace. The Next Century Foundation is encouraged by these positive steps, however, Libya has been in a similar situation before and it does not take much to derail peace negotiations. There are steps that would help ensure the success of the LPDF and indeed of other peace initiatives in regard to Libya.

The LPDF has garnered a commitment by all participating parties to hold nationwide elections in December of 2021. We support this commitment. These new elections could bring much needed legitimacy to the Libyan government.  However the last national elections were held in 2014 and only had a voter turnout of around 18%. Furthermore, some constituencies were unable to participate in the 2014 elections due to security concerns. These factors culminated in a legislature with a weak mandate that did not have the political capital needed to govern the country.

Conditions that are conducive to safe and secure elections must be in place nationwide, prior to the forthcoming 2021 elections. We also recommend that international observers are present during the election, to ensure impartiality and fairness, just as in the 2012 Libyan elections.

We also note the Skhirat Agreement that was signed in 2015. This was a peace agreement to resolve conflict that arose from the 2014 elections. Just like the outcome of the LPDF, the Skhirat agreement was backed by many of the parties at the time. However, the agreement was not accepted by General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, and as a consequence created the political impasse in which the country has been mired since 2015. Similarly, the LPDF does not have support from General Khalifa Haftar and his forces, however, this time around, the vast majority of the Libyan legislature is backing the LPDF as is the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

We welcome the allocation of funding from the GNA to the Libyan High National Electoral Commission, as it shows commitment by the GNA to holding the forthcoming elections. That said, the NCF reiterates the need for the international community to fully support the LPDF and its objectives, as well as prevent actors who wish to derail the peace process from achieving their goals. The international community needs to put stringent measures in place to deter both domestic and foreign spoilers and show its commitment to democratic/civilian led rule in Libya.

New elections will certainly help put Libya back on the path to democracy, however in order to not fall back into civil unrest the nation needs to address some further issues. The NCF highlights the fact that Libya has no nationally recognised security institution as one of its major problems. Just like almost all institutions in Libya, the security apparatus of the country is fragmented at best and non-existent at worst. This problem is a remnant of the previous Gadhafi era, where institutional power was weakened to prevent possible opposition within the state. The NCF calls on the international community to help Libya rebuild the security apparatus in the country as a unified organisation that respects the rule of law and the authority of the civilian government.

The NCF also recognises the anger felt by many Libyans over what they regard as war crimes. We encourage the Government of Libya to consider the establishment of a truth commission, also known as a truth and reconciliation commission or truth and justice commission. This could be done along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. This would be a mechanism to bring to justice those who use military force that is in contradiction with international laws and customs. The other alternative, that of recourse to vigilante justice, would slow down any peace-building measures in the country and put Libya into a further cycle of instability.

The NCF notes the fact that the National Oil Corporation in Libya (NOC), does not trust Libya’s Central Bank (CBL). So much so, that the NOC has unilaterally decided to divert all oil and gas revenues to offshore Libyan accounts to not allow the CBL access to them. The NOC has asked that, to reverse this decision, the CBL agree to greater transparency.

Many of Libya’s regional/tribal disputes have been based on perceived economic inequalities between the disputing parties. This perceived inequality is exacerbated by the fact that Libya’s main economic institutions have been operating with little or no oversight from the government and provide little or no transparency. This secrecy and lack of transparency is a hangover from the Gadhafi era, and has been difficult to change due to the weakness of the state. The lack of government authority has caused the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) to operate independently and take economic decisions without getting prior governmental consent.  The CBL’s decision to act as an independent entity has caused many tensions and up until recently had led to its split, with one headquarters in the west of the country and the other in the east.

The NCF suggests that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), exercise their fundamental mission to ensure the stability of the international monetary system by giving practical help to members, and offer their assistance and expertise to Libyan economic institutions so as to strengthen and democratise them. We are glad to see the recent appointment of the accounting firm KPMG to conduct a full audit of the NOC’s financial accounts. We hope that this will bring to light any financial wrongdoing and increase trust. Greater support is needed from the international community for such efforts to become the norm.

The NCF would also like to recommend a more decentralised and equitable form of wealth distribution in the country. With a nation that is as large and sparsely populated as Libya, having most of the economic decisions made and controlled by a few bodies in Tripoli, may not make the best of sense. For instance, those in the southern desert city of Kufra, which is over 1700 km away from Tripoli, will likely have very different economic needs than that of the coastal capital. A more decentralised economic system would give Libyan municipalities greater agency and in turn increase democracy through direct accountability.

All recent indicators on Libya seem to point in the right direction and the NCF strongly supports all of the recent efforts that are being made to alleviate the political and humanitarian crisis in Libya. We would like to remind the international community and the United Nations, that in 2011 the Libyan people came out in support of democracy and liberty. These rights are guiding principles of most nations of the world and are rights that many in the international community take for granted. It was and still is the duty of the international community to support nations in their transition to democracy, Libya being no exception.

Mixed Messages: Concerns as Early Elections are abandoned in Iraq

Talk of parliamentary elections in Iraq has as of yet revolved around one date: the 6th of June 2021. This date has been highlighted as a shining beacon in the continued turbulence and upheaval that has characterised much of recent politics in Iraq. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been at the forefront of those reiterating that elections would be held on the 6th of June, committing to his promise of early elections and a reformed electoral law in response to the demands of anti-government protests that have rocked the country since October 2019. Indeed, early elections would bring the prospect of reforms closer, reforms that are desperately needed to counteract political instability and allow the people of Iraq to reap the benefits of what will hopefully ensue; much needed economic and social stability.

However the “three Iraqi presidencies”, President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi have just met the The Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq who have informed them that they cannot meet the 6th June date. Indeed they say they will not be ready until “after September”. Further meetings are now to be held in which the political parties will be represented in order to get everyone’s agreement to a date. The most probable date now seems to be 30 October 2021.

In reality, the majority of actors making up the political fabric of Iraq were concerned about, and even opposed to, the prospect of early elections, which was what made it highly unlikely that elections could go ahead as planned in June. The Kurdish political leadership were apprehensive about early elections; the prospect of swift elections is not perceived to favour established Kurdish parties. This is in part due to the tensions both within the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The failure of rapprochement between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is another factor that shows the unresolved internal issues Kurds are dealing with and that hindered political support for early elections. Nonetheless, Kurdish parties did come together to agree on the unsuitability of June elections. Mohammed Shakir, a member of Parliament from the KDP, said in December that there was “consensus among most political blocs to postpone elections until October 30, 2021”. Shakir highlighted the fact that Parliament does have the power to establish the date of the elections, and must agree to dissolve itself before the elections occur, possibly foreshadowing a tense standoff between demonstrators in Iraq’s streets demanding early elections and the parliamentarians intended to serve them.

Sunni political leadership were also anxious about the June elections in the face of their disunity and disarray. There are two great Sunni blocks: The first is backed by millionaire former Saddam loyalist, Khamis al-Khanjar. The second block is led by the parliament speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi. Currently there is jockeying for power between those loyal to the speaker of parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi and those supporting the Sunni front that has formed in the House of Representatives seeking to oust al-Halbousi, backed by Khamis al-Khanjar. Other Sunni power blocs that are being courted by these two big players are those nominally headed by Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi respectively. Thus, al-Halbousi and much of the Sunni establishment have been pushing for delayed elections, with the fear that early elections would cause Sunni parties to lose votes in the face of the strong front of Muqtada al-Sadr’s loyalists.

Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr and his loyalists appear to have been the only actors set to benefit from early elections. The substantial mobilisation of the Sadrist movement in the demonstrations over the past year, and the momentum they gained, combined with a new electoral law that would likely increase the number of seats they hold in parliament, make the Sadrist a force to be reckoned with, and feared, by other political groups that are not as organised. With the new electoral law distributing seats more widely in smaller districts, this is believed to advantage the Sadrists, who can mobilise their strong support in rural areas and poor, densely populated regions, in part through a strong network of offices run be devoted loyalists applying and distributing information and instructions from al-Sadr. Numerous members of parliament and politicians have voiced that they believe the Sadrist movement are the biggest winners of the new law. In fact, only a few days after the law passed, al-Sadr shifted from saying he would not participate in the elections to declaring not only that he would run, but also that he was planning to win the majority needed for the premiership. Alongside his supporters’ mobilisation in rallies, their clashes with anti-government protesters, and the increasing number of television appearances by Sadrist MPs promoting voting in the elections, it appears that the Sadrists are putting substantial effort into trying to win the election.

Despite being anticipated to do well in the elections, problems will arise for the Sadrists in taking the lead in forming a Cabinet. Without forming alliances with other political forces Sadrists will have trouble obtaining a parliamentary majority, and with many political parties uncomfortable handing over crucial positions in the Iraq government to Sadrists, this will be difficult.

Nonetheless, these Sadrist efforts have also left mainstream Shia political leadership such as Hashd al-Shabi worried about the outcome of the election. Indeed, the disunity between Shia groups also makes it unlikely that they will be able to stand strong against the Sadrists, in addition to low voter turnout for Shia parties stemming from younger voters losing confidence in the election process. This has led many groups to insist on later elections. In fact, a member of parliament of the State of Law Coalition alluded to widespread support of postponed elections, saying that “the general attitude of the political power is that [elections] will be in early 2022, when the current electoral cycle ends”. Some groups have also suggested that if early elections go ahead as planned, they could boycott them; In late November, the Nasr Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, claimed they were considering a “popular and political” boycott of early elections if “fraud and interference” occurs.

This reasoning has often been used by those who did not wish the June elections to go ahead; the risk of fraud and interference. In early December, a representative from the Wataniya Alliance warned against holding elections that could not be protected against interference, calling for the end of “uncontrolled weapons” and “political sectarianism and quotas”. He also questioned the UN’s capacity to supervise the election in “areas under the control of militias” (in reality – in the NCF’s experience, the United Nations has never ever supervised elections in Iraq much beyond the Green Zone and even there, in regard to the count, its efforts have often been more nominal than substantive, their real skill being in supporting rather than monitoring the electoral process). The possibility of interference is incontestably real. Although security has improved in many parts of Iraq, both international and local interference and the possible implications on the holding of free and fair elections are big concerns for the upcoming elections.

A number of parties have also alluded to the Iraq Higher Election Committee’s (IHEC) issues in preparing for the elections as a justification for support for postponed elections. This is also not untrue; IHEC has had notorious difficulties in preparing for the elections. It was only in December that an electoral budget passed through parliament, and with still no formal electoral operational plan and timeline, preparations have been stalling. Several of the biggest challenges for IHEC remain including the introduction of biometric voting, interference, and ensuring voter security.

Biometric voting is amongst the most discussed topics of the elections. Indeed, biometric voting registration has as yet only been used in a handful of countries, and the logistical hurdles in collecting the biometric data of all voting-age citizens who wish to do so and distributing voter cards in Iraq’s tumultuous environment appear close to unsurmountable. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) noted that whilst IHEC operates 1,076 voter registration centres in the country, the weekly average of biometric voter registrations was only 7,200, with 44,000 cards distributed weekly; at that rate, only a further 2% of the 11.3 million voters who do not yet have biometric cards will have them distributed before June 2021. Fraud is also a big concern with biometric voting, including the use of electronic ballots and proxy voting, with fears of wide-scale buying of votes.

Voter security is also a central issue, although often overlooked. Whilst the security situation in a number of areas of Iraq has improved, it is important not to neglect the instability and potential for violence or voter intimidation that could occur during elections, and the repercussions that this would have on the progression of free and fair elections. Some of the areas of greatest concern at the moment are Anbar Province, Ninewa, Northern Baghdad, and more generally north western Iraq, where there is a high risk of militia groups intimidating voters. For example, in Ninewa, Kurdish voters registered in Mosul may fear for their lives when attempting to vote. Constituencies in northern Baghdad may also be at risk of intimidation from groups such as Heshd al-Shabi (or the Popular Mobilization Forces – PMF) attempting to keep Sunni voters from voting (as NCF observers noted was the case in the last election). Further, in most of these regions, international observers will not be able to monitor the election (historically the Next Century Foundation has been the only international group to attempt to monitor extensively in the interior). In these areas and in Iraq as a whole, it is therefore imperative for all parties and groups to allow free and fair elections to occur. Concrete dialogue on the practicalities of ensuring voter security should also be a priority.

Whilst these reasonings are indisputably valid and should take centre stage in the discussions surrounding the preparation for elections, they should not be used merely as cover for the alleged infeasibility of early elections. Elections will in most likelihood be delayed until October 30th, if not later, due to fierce lobbying of parties unwilling to allow the Sadrists to gain an electoral advantage, but it is important that the pertinent issues of biometric voting, voter security, and interference are actually addressed and not used merely as convenient excuses for delayed elections. Another minor but important issue is that the eleven member federal court that ratifies the election result only has nine members and the vacant seats must be filled if elections are to be held (and there are no nominations as yet and no consensus as to who those two judges should be). Early elections or not, the importance of these issues in ensuring that the citizens of Iraq can vote in free and fair elections cannot be overstated. They will lay the foundations of the legitimacy of the next governments of Iraq, and thus dictate its prospects of political stability for years to come.

Give Peace a Chance in Libya

The Mid East Security Council of the Next Century Foundation has been discussing Libya. Those involved are both encouraged by recent developments, and concerned that foreign players may seek to undermine the latest tentative steps toward peace, if merely because Libya represents an opportunity for financial gain and / or hegemonic advantage.

Given recent Libyan peace talks under the auspices of the Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) questions are being asked as to how the recent victory of President-elect Joe Biden would affect Libya.

The LPDF

The LPDF has proven successful thus far in bringing together the different sides in Libya’s civil conflict. The Next Century Foundation views the LPDF as a positive step forward breathing new life into Libya’s stalled political process. Some in the East of the country, however, are less optimistic stating that although the LPDF is a great start, they fear that this may result in an outcome similar to that of the Skhirat agreement (Morocco 2015) and so might fail. However, the level of support from the East with regard to the LPDF is much stronger than that which was present in the Skhirat agreement and so there was a higher chance of success.

The fact that the LPDF has already suggested a date for new national elections and both Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representatives (the unicameral parliament of Libya with c. 127 members resulting from the 2014 Libyan parliamentary election) agree with it is a good sign for things to come. NCF Sources in the Libyan electoral commission also agreed that the funding provided by the government to initiate the elections was a good sign that the parties involved were eager to make the LPDF work. That said, General Haftar may not be as likely to accept the LPDF talks or the results of the new elections. However, he may have no choice in the matter, especially with his recent defeats in Tripoli and a shift in policy from regional powers (likely due to the election of Joseph Biden).

This progress is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Libya still has no constitution. Meaning that although these elections would be giving new legitimacy to the government, the government still has no roadmap to decide what and where its powers are. Also, Libya’s Berber community are quick to point out that without a constitution, many minority groups would not have adequate protection or representation in the new government.

The Biden Victory

President-elect Joseph Biden’s victory will likely have a positive impact on Libya. A Biden presidency will likely want to continue the work of the Obama administration. The appointment of Antony Blinken as the next US Secretary of State is a good sign. The US under Biden would likely want to bring its NATO allies back into line, especially in Libya. Under a Biden presidency, the US will be concerned about growing Russian influence in the Mediterranean. All the more so in view of the fact the US house of representatives passed the Libya stabilisation act with bi-partisan support. The act reaffirms US commitment to democracy and stability in Libya, and emphasizes the need for the prevention of foreign interference, specifically that by the Russians.

Russian interference has been growing in years following the 2016 US elections. Not just in Libya but also in Syria and Eastern Europe. And in the absence of a strong US leadership, Russian influence in Libya has actually been promoted by NATO member states, especially France. This has caused hostility between France on one side and Turkey and Italy on the other (all three of whom are NATO members). However, with the recent Biden victory, many nations, including France and Turkey, have started to become more cautious about how they conduct their foreign policy.

Interestingly this approach by France was not just in contravention of NATO policy; it also contravenes European Union policy. There needs to be a strong, cohesive approach regarding Libya. If the current approach continues then the region could become even more unstable.

The Outcome

The recent LPDF talks are definitely something that brings hope for stability in the country. Furthermore, the recent gathering of HOR members in Ghadames, creating a quorum for the first time in years, is definitely a good sign. We must be cautious, though, as Libya has been through this before and shown progress, only to have that progress wiped out in the last minute.

With that said, the mood of the recent NCF meeting was definitely one of hopeful optimism. Participants agreed that given all that is currently going on with regard to Libya, there is definitely a recent push, domestically and internationally, to revive the peace process and establish stability in the country.

Afghan women are needed in the peace process

The Afghan peace talks being held in Doha, Qatar represent a glimmer of hope for the people of Afghanistan. They offer the prospect of a possible cessation of the daily violence and atrocities the people of Afghanistan face and the establishment of a stable governing body, returning fundamental rights to all Afghanistan’s citizens, especially its women. While the host of issues being discussed in Doha are crucial, women’s rights is an issue that is consistently avoided and swept aside.

The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has had plenty of media coverage over the years, with various governments and international organisations denouncing the lack of rights for Afghan women. The lack of basic rights for women is as detrimental to Afghan society. Women and girls have borne the brunt of violence and instability throughout the years of conflict, only to be heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the era of Taliban rule that commenced in the second half of the 1990s, women were active members of Afghan society. At that time 70% of teachers in Kabul were women. Once the Taliban came to power, women’s fundamental rights to education were revoked and the co-educational system in Afghanistan was dismantled, making multiple state run schools into all boys schools. One of the Taliban’s edicts in 1997 called for a nationwide ban on public education for all women and girls. As a result of this, and despite efforts by many women intent on educating their daughters despite the restrictions, literacy rates in the country fell to some of the lowest in the world, 13% in urban areas and as low as 3% in some rural areas. Some women set up schools for girls in private homes despite the increasingly oppressive environment and increasing violence toward those who dared oppose the Taliban and their restrictions.

The Taliban didn’t just restrict the right to education for women and girls but also the right to seek employment. In 1997, the Taliban banned women from working in public places. Bans on the freedom of movement and degrading access to health care for women made matters worse. With a majority of hospitals destroyed during the civil war and the rest located only in urban centres, infant mortality rates increased along with the chances of a mother dying during childbirth.

Despite more than a decade passing since the Taliban were removed from power, equal protection and rights for women still seems a long way off. This, coupled with the seemingly imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, means that the issue of fighting for women’s rights may be put on the back burner in Kabul, undoing considerable work done by women to achieve some progress on the issue. 

Despite the international community hoping for the US to play a more significant role in pushing for women’s rights in Afghanistan they have largely failed to do so. In the recent 2020 Afghanistan Conference, the US encouraged Afghanistan to prioritise the “protection of the rights of women and girls”. The problem however arises when this commitment remains an encouragement on paper and does not translate into actual policy. The Trump administration just this past February signed a deal with the Taliban which in summation focussed on a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, intra-Afghan negotiations and counter-terrorism measures. Unfortunately, amongst all these points, there were none that ensured a commitment to working toward the betterment of women’s rights in Afghanistan. A reduced US presence in Afghanistan may pave the way for a greater role by other powers. Countries such as China, Iran, India, Russia and Pakistan already play a role in Afghanistan and a greater commitment on their part to further stability and creating an environment where women’s issues can be heard and worked on would go a long way, not just for Afghanistan but also for creating a more prosperous region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not made things easier for women in Afghanistan. A UN women study showed how the pandemic has affected women and girls disproportionately as compared to men, in terms of employment, health, migration, unpaid care and education. The exposure that the pandemic has given to economic and social vulnerabilities is especially stark in the case of Afghan women. While access to health care has been a challenge in Afghanistan for years now, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Most women already had reduced access to health care and most are now unable to find any access. Moreover, due to the restrictions and complexities caused by the Taliban with regard to women’s employment, most of them now work in the “informal sector”. Unfortunately, one of the largest tolls of the pandemic has been the loss of work for many in the informal sector, which in this case has been a majority of Afghan women. About 63% of women who were surveyed claimed to have lost their informal sector jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic has also had an adverse impact on education for girls, which was already problematic in various regions in Afghanistan. The girls that were finally enrolled in school, due to the pandemic, are now most often at home, as a consequence of school closures disrupting their education. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown just how essential it is that women are included as part of any new government in Kabul so that issues that concern women are effectively highlighted and acted on. 

Keeping in mind the years women have spent facing the hardships and consequences of Taliban created rules, it is essential that the peace talks in Doha pay greater attention to the issues women in Afghanistan face on a daily basis. The role the international community has played in Afghanistan as well as the power they hold to push certain policy objectives should stop them jeopardising the few freedoms women in Afghanistan have finally secured for themselves. Given the especially taxing year many women have had due to the pandemic, these talks should push for a stable Afghanistan in conjunction with greater inclusion for women in society and less tolerance for gender based violence and discrimination. 

A story of segregation: the rise of factitious Christian Europe and Islamic Middle East

The ongoing plummet of Christians living in the Middle East backed by European leader’s preferential treatment of non-Muslim refugees seeking asylum, reinforces the narrative that Europe is unequivocally Christian and the Middle East, a home reserved for Muslims only. Consequently, breeding the already existing estrangement between these two regions of the world, known for some time as the ‘East-West divide’.

The 20% of Christians that comprised the Middle East a century ago has dwindled to 5% in recent years, leaving many towns of significant Christian value in the region deprived of contact. This comes after the imposition of years of restrictions on the religious expression of Arab Christian communities which has heightened in the face of wars and conflicts, triggering hostility towards Middle Eastern minorities of the like. A report commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year indicates that 80% of persecuted religious believers in the Middle East are Christians who experience systemic discrimination in education, employment, and social life, sometimes also falling victim to direct violence. This has led to a vast departure of Christians from the region, altering the demographics of countries like Iraq, Syria, and, Iran, that have previously been the home to sizable Christian populations.

In Iraq for example, the number of Christian inhabitants has fallen by approximately 83% in the past 16 years; home to one of the oldest Churches in the world which the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda has claimed to be dangerously close to extinction. Prior to 2011, 44% of 250,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria were of Christian belief which since the war, have been hit heavily alongside Syrian Christians themselves of which half of its population is estimated to have left the country with evidence suggesting no expectation or intention to return. In some of Syria’s larger cities however, the proportion of Christians and Muslims escaping the civil war is of equal number, highlighting the inevitable struggle that touches all in the face of political turmoil.

Yet, not all are able to recognise this however, as many European countries, in the battle to preserve the so called ‘Christian culture of Europe’, have been welcoming Christian refugees over Muslim, with justifications given that are potentially similar in scope to those provided for the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. The reason for Hungary’s preferential treatment was iterated by prime minister Viktor Orban as the desire for Europe to continue ‘belonging to Europeans’. Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Czech Republic, and recently Sweden have held similar positions on the matter, by voicing a responsibility in helping Christians or using the Islamic terrorist wildcard as an excuse for their discriminatory practices, which violates EU law.

A spokesman from Operation Safe Havens, Andrew Carey has defended the practices of such countries, drawing upon the vulnerability faced by Christian minorities outside of Europe, who he believes should be given priority as a result. European countries with dwindling Christian significance are more likely to accept Muslim refugees, yet grievances can still be expressed in the form of demonstration about a perceived ‘Islamisation of Europe’ in these states. An example of this was a movement called Pegida in Germany which involved protesters carrying a large illuminated cross, painted in the colours of the German flag to portray their role in enshrining the Christian spirit of Europe, following Angela Merkel’s announcement that Germany would welcome all refugees from the Middle East regardless of their religious beliefs. Such backlash has caused some Muslim refugees to convert to Christianity or falsely identify themselves as so, in a bit to gain legal residency in places like Germany, which raises concerns elsewhere about the legitimacy of those claiming to be of Christian belief from the Middle East.

The growing homogeneity of these two regions of the world comes as a shame rather than a source of pride, when remembering the integral part Islam has played in Europe historically, and the strong foundations of Christianity which are embedded nowhere else but in the Middle East. The situation at hand epitomes our failure to co-exist as two religions nested in the same Abrahamic tradition, in contrast to our ancestors of pre-modern times in Medieval Andalusia, Arabia, and Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Let us hope that the Pope’s visit to Iraq next March will help secure Christianity’s rightful place in the region whilst inspiring European leaders to act more benevolently towards Muslims seeking residency in Europe.

Release of Human Rights Activists in Egypt bodes well

In a promising advance, earlier this month on the 3rd December, Egypt released three human rights activists from southern Cairo’s Tora prison following an international campaign on their behalf. The three men, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had been detained in early November after a public meeting with 13 foreign diplomats and ambassadors, including representatives from the U.K., Germany, and Canada, to discuss human rights in the country, leading to charges of spreading false news, alongside charges of joining a terror group. The three men released included EIPR Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razek, Criminal Justice Director Karim Ennarah, and Administrative Director Mohamed Basheer. In a statement, EIPR said that they were now either home or on their way home. However, a gender rights researcher for EIPR, Patrick George Zaky, remains behind bars since his arrest in February, when he visited Cairo from Bologna where he was completing a Master’s degree.

EIPR is a renowned Egyptian human rights group, operating in a context where many organisations have had to stop working in the face of a sustained crackdown on independent organisations by Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Indeed, EIPR has worked since 2002 with the aim of strengthening and protecting basic rights and freedoms in Egypt through research, advocacy, and the support of litigation. They also document civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence, and discrimination against religious minorities and women.

However, human rights advocates are not the only the only group of individuals targeted under President El-Sisi. Others targeted include Islamist political opponents, pro-democracy activists, journalists, and online critics. In fact, the same day Gasser Abdel-Razek appeared before a prosecutor for questioning, the 23rd November, judicial authorities added opposition politician Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, and 25 others to a terrorism watch list for five years without charging them with a criminal offence or giving them an opportunity to challenge the evidence.

Nonetheless, the release of the EIPR activists and the October release of satirical blogger Shadi Abu Zeid after two and a half years in detention (also arrested for spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group) are encouraging advances. These releases demonstrate that President El-Sisi’s government is responsive to international pressure. With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing her concern at the “profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society” alongside concerns voiced by traditional allies of Egypt such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there is clearly international attention on the matter. In fact, Italian, Irish, and other ambassadors had sent letters to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry asking for the release of the EIPR staff, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab discussed the matter with Minister Shoukry.

On the other hand, whilst France had initially joined those who had voiced criticism about the arrests of the EIPR activists, on Monday 7th December at a meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and President El-Sisi at the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris, President Macron stated that defence and commercial ties would be maintained with Egypt and future French arms sales to Egypt would go ahead, as cooperation between the two countries was paramount in the struggle against terrorism and would contribute to regional stability. This statement was met with fierce criticism from liberal and left-wing French politicians over concerns about human rights violations.

However, President Macron affirmed at a joint press conference that: “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights], it is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism”. Indeed, France views the relationship with Egypt as crucial to the containment of armed insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula and militias that oppose General Haftar in Libya. Nevertheless, French officials stressed that President Macron had brought up the issue of human rights in private with President El-Sisi.

Despite the encouraging release of the activists, criminal charges against them have not been dropped, and Cairo’s Third Circuit Terrorism Court ordered the temporary freezing of all three men’s personal assets, property, and bank accounts. Hossam Bahgat, the founder and former director of EIPR, has had his assets frozen for years, and has been banned from leaving Egypt. Additionally, rights groups estimate that there are still as many as 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. Whilst the release is a move in the right direction by President El-Sisi, there is still room for more progress in the respect of the important contributions of civil society in Egypt, and the continued release of more detainees, especially given the current risk prisoners face in crowded Egyptian prisons where few physical distancing measures are in place. A positive next step could include the release of EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaky, and more of his activist colleagues.