MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

On May 1, 2003, then-President George W. Bush stood in front of a large crowd aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and famously pronounced with a draped “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him the end of US combat operations in Iraq. The declaration, it turned out, was wildly premature, for Washington’s direct military involvement in the war would go on for another eight costly years. It was an embarrassing if not deceitful moment in the history of US foreign policy, one that America’s friends in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, took turns to mock and decry.

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On the sidelines of the 71st session of the United States General Assembly on September 19, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Sisi’s meetings with Trump and Clinton sparked considerable discussion around what the US-Egyptian relationship would look like under either presidency. Meanwhile, as in 2015, Sisi conducted interviews with a number of prominent American news outlets, including PBS and CNN. In both his meetings with the US presidential candidates and his interviews, Sisi praised the US-Egyptian relationship and emphasized the need to fight terrorism in the face of ongoing security concerns.

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This Hajj season, the modern religious culture wars among Muslims were prominent again, and are set to continue. With the Syrian quagmire deepening, such conflicts have deep consequences; one could imagine a way to traverse through that set of profoundly sectarian questions – but the answers are acutely political. Without that political settlement – which goes far beyond Syria – there is no space in which to have meaningful and genuine conversations.

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Youssef Chahed, the Arab world's youngest head of government and a 41-year-old PhD holder in agricultural economics, led the decentralisation program as Tunisia’s Minister of Local Affairs under the government of his predecessor, Habib Essid. This experience arms him in his new role as prime minister with an understanding of Tunisia's deep bureaucracy and uneven resource distribution among the country's regions. This is one of the areas where his newly formed government has to make major reforms to respond to increasingly urgent local demands.

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In today’s Iraq, political movements and politicians shy away from promoting secularism or proclaiming to be secularists. The reasons for this—and the reasons for the rise of religious (and religious identity) politics in Iraq after the 1958 coup in which the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown—are numerous and complex. Some of the main factors that may lie behind the demise of secularism and the rise of Islamism include: the failure and brutality of secular governments, including that of Saddam Hussein; the suppression of religious political movements; successive wars; international sanctions and their effect on society at large; the Saddam Regime’s "Faith Campaign" in the mid-90's during which the regime attempted to pacify the population struggling under the harshness of international sanctions by promoting religion; and the lack of public political discourse.

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The situation in Libya seems to be heading toward a military confrontation between forces loyal to the UN-sponsored Government of National Agreement (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of General Khalifa Haftar. The General is nominally under the authority of the House of Representatives (HoR), the parliament seated in Tobruk and of the government headed by Abdullah al-Thinni seated in al-Bayda. In reality, Haftar is his own commander and has been encouraged by strong support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to launch his bid to take control of as much Libyan territory as possible. The General’s strategy has been apparent for a long time; the latest events, the sudden and rapid attack to conquer the oil infrastructure in the Gulf of Sidra, offer empirical confirmation of such a plan.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry met two weeks ago with Gulf Cooperation Council representatives, officials from the United Kingdom, and the UN special envoy in Jeddah to discuss the war in Yemen and the desperate need to advance the peace talks. He pledged $189 million in humanitarian aid and called for a new peace initiative.  The talks are currently in recess, so increased attention from the White House might nudge the parties back to the table.

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In a series of interviews with state media at the end of August, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave insight into his views toward foreign policy, economics, and domestic politics. Sisi’s remarks on Libya and Syria in particular reflect the threat perceptions to national security driving Egypt’s foreign policy in the region and should be carefully considered by the next US president. The next US administration will need to recognize that, despite what Sisi described as a “strategic and … improving” relationship between Egypt and the United States, the latter will fail to secure Sisi’s assistance with American regional priorities if it does not address Egypt’s own regional security concerns.

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In a context of economic woes, Youssef Chahed’s proposed cabinet received overwhelming support in a vote of confidence on August 26, with 167 of Tunisia’s members of parliament voting in its favor. The early vote, which took place prior to the September 1 legal deadline to form a new government, allowed the newly appointed 26 ministers and 14 Secretaries of State to begin their functions as of August 30. Chahed’s cabinet, the seventh government to take office since the 2011 revolution, claims that it will be setting itself apart from its predecessors, most notably from toppled head of government Habib Essid. Essid, who was gradually sidelined from the political game, was eventually ousted in a vote of no confidence in July, partly because of Tunisia’s poor economic performance during his 18 months in office.

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Much has been made of the recent resignation by Tunisia’s former prime minister Habib Essid and the appointment and parliamentary approval of his replacement Youssef Chahed as damaging to Tunisia’s political stability. In the aftermath of these changes, one former member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly wrote, “Within the last 18 months, the parliament has been asked to vote on their confidence in the government four times, which does not bode well for the necessity of stable governance in Tunisia.” And Chahed himself exclaimed after taking office that Tunisia "can no longer afford a rapid succession of governments; the worst thing for this country is to see a change of government every year or year and a half.” However, Essid’s resignation and Chahed’s appointment, as well as all of the other changes in government that have happened in Tunisia since 2011, do not necessarily reflect any sort of political instability. Rather, they could be viewed as proof of the robust nature of Tunisia’s nascent political democracy.

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