Session 2: The Arab Awakening
Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the Atlantic Council
U.S. Institute of Peace
Swissôtel, The Bosphorus
12:00 – 1:15 p.m.
Friday, November 16, 2012
Federal News Service
MICHELE DUNNE: Good morning, or I guess I should say good afternoon and welcome to the panel on the Arab awakening.
My name is Michele Dunne. I’m the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
We are a new program at the Atlantic Council, set up a little bit more than a year ago. And we’re dedicated to studying the wave of change sweeping the region and U.S. and European and other policies toward the transitioning Arab countries.
Let me introduce briefly my panelists, although, of course, you have their full bios in your folders. To my left is Hani Shukrallah. He is the editor – managing editor of Al-Ahram Online, a very senior journalist and human rights activist from Egypt.
Thank you very much for coming here to Istanbul to be with us, Hani.
And to his left is someone I think you probably already know well, Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet, and a very seasoned observer of the Middle East and of Turkish policy toward the region.
And then Rami Nakhla who is from Syria. He has been an activist throughout the Syrian revolution, was involved with the local coordinating committees, the Syrian National Council, and he is currently a program specialist with the U.S. Institute of Peace based here in Istanbul, still working on Syria.
Thank you all of you for being with us here today.
So we constructed this panel to discuss the wave of change and sort of the new Middle East, the changes. And we were going to focus particularly on Syria and Egypt, and we will do so during this hour. But today, the old Middle East, so to speak, has reasserted itself. And the old Middle East conflict has been reignited really in a frightening way in Gaza.
In this exchange between Israel and Gaza, there are now at least 19 Palestinians dead and three Israelis dead. And in a way, this seems like re-running the experience of the Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead, from four years ago.
But there is something really different here as well, and that’s related to the changes in the Middle East, which is that the other players in the Middle East now, I think, are playing different roles. Whereas four years ago it was Syria and Iran really actively taking the part of Gaza, now we have Egypt, Qatar and Turkey as well. And those, of course, are all close allies of the United States. So there is some kind of an intersection, I think, between the internal changes in these countries in the region, the revolutions and uprisings, and the dynamics in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So I’d like to start with you, Hani. The Egyptian prime minister just finished a brief visit to Gaza. Egypt is very much in the middle of trying to stop this conflict. I’d like you to say a few words about what role Egypt is playing in the region, and then perhaps to go on to speak a little bit about Egypt’s internal situation.
Egypt – we might be seeing a draft Egyptian constitution coming to a public referendum shortly. And perhaps new parliamentary elections shortly after that. So there’s a great deal going on in internal politics, while at the same time there’s a lot of focus on President Morsi and how he’s going to handle an Arab-Israeli crisis.
HANI SHUKRALLAH: Thank you. Thank you, Michele. And thank you for the Atlantic Council, and for you especially for letting me be part of this very, very exciting event and, of course, in this wonderful city.
I actually told my staff before coming that I may not come back. (Laughter.) And since, you know, we might get back the (caliphate ?), I figured let’s get it back properly and get a seat back where it belongs in Istanbul. (Chuckles.)
So anyway, yeah, what is baffling or perhaps not knowing the kind of swing to the right, actually protracted, more strategic swing to the right in Israel, that Israel has been in denial about the Arab Spring. They have refused to admit its existence from the start. And Netanyahu was during the 18 days of the Egyptian revolution was arguing very strongly that this was Islamists coming and they were – which was wholly untrue, and it was a threat to Israel and that Mubarak would – that, you know, and urging the U.S. administration to save Mubarak. And of course, other regional players were also arguing the same, namely, of course (the Saudis ?).
But you know, we are almost two years after the Egyptian revolution. And still, Israel does not seem to try to even contemplate what the significance of that is for them. And basically, what the most important ramification is that whoever is in power, regardless of Muslim Brotherhood or not, whoever is in power in Egypt will hitherto be much more responsive to Egyptian public opinion in foreign policy, in decisions, than Mubarak.
Mubarak for 30 years just shut Egyptian public opinion off. In truth, it did not concern him in this as in any other aspect of his regime.
But now you have governments, whatever their inclinations, they will have to at least nod towards public opinion. And this increasingly will be felt, I think, in the coming months and years.
As we’ve seen already, the prime minister – this is unprecedented. While Gaza is under attack, Egypt’s prime minister goes to Gaza for, ostensibly, a solidarity visit. Of course, other part of the agenda is to try to broker a truce.
It was in fact very typical Muslim Brotherhood mode, a very brief solidarity, extremely brief. (Chuckles.) He was supposed to stay for three hours; he didn’t spend even that long. But the gesture was there.
We have one of the very prominent current political leaders in Egypt, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, ex-Brotherhood who has – and actually, we should preach – talk more about Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh because I think he’s very interesting aspect of the developments in Egypt today. But he is in Gaza. He was giving a press conference just shortly, just a little while ago.
And the whole way Egypt is taking the attack this year, if you contrast it with four years ago, as you pointed out, is just dramatically different.
But as far as the regime, I mean, but – another thing, aspect actually we have to point out is that the Morsi administration has, from the start, been very careful as well in how it deals with Israel. I mean, Morsi’s first speech after being announced the winner, one of – you know, he spoke a lot of rhetoric. But one of the more concrete aspects of that speech was declaring their commitment to – of course, he didn’t name that particular agreement, but he declared his commitment as Egypt’s president – as Egypt’s forthcoming president, to all international agreements and treaties signed by Egypt.
And of course, that message was (campaign ?). And this has been reiterated over and over again in Sinai with the jihadists and so on. We know very well that there has been full coordination, daily coordination with Israelis. So it’s not as Netanyahu was, you know, trying to scare everybody. It’s not that we have an – (inaudible) – about to tear up the peace treaty and send the troops – (inaudible).
Indeed, the whole thing about Area C, which is supposed to be demilitarized, has been – you know, when they did send some troops to pursue the jihadists, it was, again, with full knowledge of the Americans and the Israelis and in fact (an agreement ?).
If you want me to move to the internal?
MS. DUNNE: Yeah. And could you say something about the, yeah, the internal political, economic security situation in Egypt?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: It’s a turbulent time, very turbulent time. I don’t expect that we’ll see anything, you know, crystallizing very soon, even, as you pointed out, the constitution, until – I mean, this morning, we – I got the news that the representatives of the Coptic Church have declared that they are withdrawing from the constituent assembly. Already, some 30 members of the constituent assembly have already declared their withdrawal.
By, you know – I think eventually within the next couple of days, we’re going to see the constituent assembly being reduced to the Islamist members. And that does not make a constituency. That does not make – if they actually go ahead and try to put such a draft constitution to public referendum, it will be a very serious –
MS. DUNNE: This is going to lead to a very highly pressured situation, right? Because the constituent assembly’s mandate runs out in the middle of December, right?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: Exactly, exactly.
MS. DUNNE: So if they don’t produce a draft constitution by then –
MR. SHUKRALLAH: Sure. They’re finishing it. I mean, I think the draft is already there. But there are so many – so much opposition to it from within the constituent assembly and from without, that to actually go ahead and, despite these oppositions and withdrawals and so on, and put it to a public referendum would be just, you know – I think it would be a recipe for political disaster in the country.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you.
With Asli’s kind forbearance, I’m going to turn now to Rami to speak about Syria. So you know, I began with Gaza, and there may be 20 Gazans who have died. But I think there are close to 100 Syrians who have died today in Syria, that violence there has reached incredible proportions, as has the number of refugees, and the spillover effect from the Syrian revolution and what has become an armed rebellion into the neighboring countries, including, of course, Turkey as well as Lebanon and so forth.
So I’d like you to – we have had a promising political development perhaps with the creation of the new Syrian National Coalition in Doha. And there is a hope now perhaps of the establishment of a Syrian – a government of the Syrian opposition.
What is the outlook for that? And how does that connect to the situation on the ground? Do you see this new political leadership body becoming really stitched up with the free Syrian army and so forth?
And then, please, you could also say a few words about external actors. We have seen Turkey and France now explicitly and fully recognize the new leadership body as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We’ve seen a lesser degree of recognition from the United States and other outside actors. What is going on inside Syria?
What’s the connection between the political leadership and the armed rebellion? And then what do you see as the outlook for greater support from the international community?
RAMI NAKHLA: Thank you so much, Michele. I think talking about Syria, Syria absolutely is the most difficult equation in the Arab Spring. We have so many elements at the moments as interacting in the ground.
Syria, where we can see until this moment, we have widespread violent resistance until this moment. We have armed conflict. We have civil war. And we have a revolution for a democracy. All these element, it’s playing all together in the ground.
And guess what? It’s leaderless until this moment. It’s absolutely leaderless.
With the new coalition, with the coalition that happened before it, the Syrian National Council, and there is many other positioned groups, all what we were trying to do is to organize the Syrian uprising, is to get people together to work together across sectarian barriers, across regional barriers and somehow to establish a national network to coordinate what’s going on in the ground.
Still this moment, there is – until this moment, the efforts, some of it succeed, some of it not really good. But at the moment, to be honest and optimistic, with the new coalition for the Syrian opposition, I’m not optimistic because I can’t see that there is element for this coalition to succeed.
I cannot see that this new coalition has come up with something different than the SNC came up with. And to be honest, it’s almost the same start. And this recognition, it’s already the SNC got some recognition when it’s established.
But why I am optimistic? Because Syrian people, they’re fed up. They need new leadership. After decades of being under authoritarian regime, we were rejecting any kind of leadership. We were like anytime any new leader will emerge we knock him down. That’s in (even ?) of the smallest community that organized a protest in a neighborhood, up to the SNC level. It was like this everywhere.
We rejected any new leadership. But right now, things are really changing, and not just from the internal side, as well from the external side. I think the international community at this moment, they reach a decision to make it work. And I will say this again, and I’ve said it many times before, I think the international community has played a big role, a destructive role in the division of the Syrian opposition.
Why? Because when the Syrian uprising started, as a Syrian opposition member, we were under great pressure from the international community to come up with an umbrella to coordinate the Syrian opposition. And we worked very hard on this. And finally, the Syrian National Council emerged.
But the international community never stood up and says to the Syrian opposition, game is over, we have a winner. They never said it before. This is give hope for many other fractions of the Syrian opposition to keep working, to keep trying. It’s still open. And that’s what led for one year of diversity. That’s what led for every leader in the Syrian opposition think himself he could be a leader. It’s still open.
But today, all of this is end. And I am optimistic at the moment. If we read the international statements, if we went back to the French statement when they said, we will go to the European Parliament and ask to let the embargo – (inaudible) – exporting weapons to Syria, they said, we are doing this because we have received a request from the new opposition coalition. This give the new coalition legitimacy on the ground. This will give them – people will think, OK, look, they did in the first day more than the SNC did in one year.
That’s fine, that’s good, we Knew this new body to be strong. We need this new body to work. We have only one option, to minimize the conflict (down ?). We have only one option, to shorten as much as possible the transition period, and that option would be if we have a strong government.
That’s why Syrian people at the moment understand this fact. And they want to support and give trust for this government to become a strong government maybe in the future.
At the moment – I will go back now to the challenges that this new coalition might fact. First of all and the most important one is not handling outside regime, but handling the armed groups that spread all over Syria. Would they be able to organize all their work? Would they be able to put them together, establish command and order? Would they be able to bring them under one national institution? So this is the main challenge, and how they can do it.
Absolutely, they cannot do it alone. The SNC – the SNC has planned to do so, but they did not manage to do it because we need to unify the channeling fund to those groups. We need to have this new coalition.
There is no country, no sheik in any mosque in the war can channel funds to those armed groups without going through the civilian leadership which is the new armed group. Then when this civilian leadership can provide fund and support for this – for the armed groups, then we can somehow install a civilian leadership and promote it among them.
I can see that you have questions. OK.
MS. DUNNE: (Chuckles.) Yes, I do. I have two questions for you. One of them is, this conflict has become increasingly militarized. And while the political opposition has struggled, as you’ve been describing, internally, the various units related to the free Syrian army have been increasingly successful, and we’ve reached a point where the Syrian government can no longer hold Damascus and Aleppo at the same time. They have to choose between them.
So that seems to me a very critical situation. So what is the trajectory of the military part of this? How – you know, and – because the international community faces decisions about whether to transfer arms directly, specifically anti-aircraft weapons, to the free Syrian army, or whether to try to protect some kind of a free zone within Syria. Can the Syrian rebels win on their own, or do they have to have more international assistance in order to win this? Question number one.
The other quick question – you were very involved, Rami, with the The Day After project, looking at what would come in Syria after the fall of the Al-Assad regime. And that, of course, has been a subject of deep concern to the international community. And it’s been one of the main arguments, for example, of Russia about why there should not be greater international involvement.
So could you comment on those two things, please?
MR. NAKHLA: I think absolutely the Assad regime has no chance to revive at the moment, because if we just analyze the trend how it’s growing, the Syrian national army is losing power day after day. And the armed groups, the rebellions, even with no direct support, they’re gaining more and more power, they’re gaining more legitimacy on the ground, and they become – they’re gaining more support as well from outsiders, let’s say, or from jihadists.
This is big and deep concern for us. Yes, al-Qaida inside Syria. And al-Qaida is taking over the country village by village. This is fact. I know for sure that in some villages in Idlib, al-Qaida have been even distributing natural gas for people.
All my life, I thought that al-Qaida is just like a slogan, it’s motto, it’s not an institution. But I discovered no, yes they are very organized institution. They came up from nowhere and somehow they’re operating in the ground in the most efficient way. They manage to provide for Syrian people more than what the opposition provide or the international community.
And I told this to the Americans. I told them, this is your mistake, this is the international community mistake. The same people who greeted Ambassador Ford with flower in Hama, today they are welcoming al-Qaida. Why? Because they can see what they are providing them. People under shelling, people under bombing, they need just any kind of support. So I cannot blame them at all.
So we can see where the country is going. And here we go back to the international support. I think, yes, the Syrian opposition can win this battle without any international support. But it might win it in 10 years. In 10 years, this will become not only a regional conflict, it will spill over for sure and we can see the civil war will spill over to Lebanon, to Iraq, to maybe, like, Turkey and PKK, my place now where we talk more about the spillover effect on Turkey.
So the – sorry, I forget the second question.
MS. DUNNE: The Day After.
MR. NAKHLA: The Day After, OK, this is the main thing I’m doing. Since the uprising started, we have noticed that the Syrian opposition, everybody is more concerned about how to bring the fall of Assad regime. But we understood that after this regime fall, we have tremendous challenge that will face us. We have tremendous challenge to bring the stability back to Syria.
The program started by ideas of my colleagues. They gained the support of United States Institute of Peace, USIP, United States Institute of Peace. They have secured funds for this project. And we bring – and I worked with them as program specialist coordinating The Day After project on their behalf. And we managed to bring 45 members of the Syrian opposition, including, like, most of the – (inaudible) – of the Syrian opposition, we tried to be inclusive as much as possible.
And we met in Berlin for seven times and three or up to five days each. We met for eight months. We were working in this project, supported by USIP experts, supported by the German Institute for International Affairs and by international experts.
MS. DUNNE: Rami, my question about the project is, to what extent is this plan or some variation of it actually going to be adopted, for example, by the coalition, by a political leadership who will say, we have a plan for what happens after the fall of the regime?
MR. NAKHLA: I think the strategy that we have worked with, it was successful in somehow up to this point, because we thought that it really doesn’t matter if we have amazing transitional plan and it’s on the shelf somewhere so the decision-maker maybe will never read it. So the best way is to include them in the process of making this document and the planning. And I think we have succeeded on this.
Before the coalition, before we published our final document, the Syrian National Council acknowledged this document, officially acknowledge it, and they said, it’s our document. And the Muslim Brotherhood, they endorsed our plan as well.
And today, when we go to the new coalition, we know for sure that at least seven people from this coalition, they have been members in our project and they have been working with us, they have been part in the process of this planning. That’s why we are so confident it will be implemented by them.
And also, just the last thing, we also know, like, in the recommendation for The Day After, we have time line, and many of those recommendation is already overdue. So that’s why we have decided to come here, establish an office and to start working in the implementation for this plan.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you.
Asli, thank you for your patience. We want to hear from you now your analysis of what’s going on in the region, as a seasoned observer of Turkish interests and Turkish policy.
A few specific things. What are the prospects for Turkish-Israeli relations now especially in light of the new conflict in Gaza?
Regarding Egypt, there’s a lot of talk now that Egypt might be working much more closely with Turkey instead of Saudi Arabia, for example. That there might be a new Egyptian-Turkish alliance of a sort in regional affairs. I wonder what you think about that.
And then, of course, Syria. Turkey has very critical interests regarding Syria. And what it is that – how – what it is that you think Turkey wants from the international community, from the United States and others in terms of addressing the Syrian conflict more effectively.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Thanks, Michele.
Let me start with the Turkish-Israeli dynamics since it’s breaking news literally with the Israeli operation in Gaza. I think there’s a sense here that there is outrage, of course, in the political arena, but there’s also a sense in the public opinion that this is very ’90s, this is very retro what Israelis are doing. To do a military offensive right before an election, that could have – maybe that would fly during the sort of Cold War era in the Middle East where things were not in flux and things, whatever the Israelis did, you know, remained the same, the strategic equation.
But we live in a very different Middle East now, and it is in flux. And I do agree with you that, you know, there is a way in which Israelis are not coming to full grasp, not really understanding the demographic and political reality of the new Middle East, which is Islamists are in power, moderate Islamic groups are in power in Turkey, in Egypt, in Tunisia and everywhere.
Look at the outrage now at the offensive in Gaza. I mean, you know, 20 people have died, including the military leader – one of the military leaders of Hamas. And the outrage is far more than the outrage that people express on any day in Syria. You have some days where 200 people die in Syria, you know, 200, it’s tenfold exactly.
But instead, we have now Morsi calling “Erdogan, Erdogan,” thinking of going to Gaza. I don’t think he’ll end up doing it, but there’s talk definitely of Erdogan doing to Gaza, which I think makes people very nervous in Washington.
And of course, it’s going to create a new – it’s going to increase the already – the interest in Turkey of a new relationship with the new Egypt. You know, it’s no secret that people feel an affinity, people in government feel an affinity to Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It’s no secret that they are on comfortable terms, at least, with Hamas.
And you know, with Erdogan’s possible visit to Egypt, I think it’s coming up over the next couple of months, I will think that there is a new – there will be new efforts, new talk of alliances, et cetera. One doesn’t know how far it would go, but at least there is sympathy on both sides.
I think that, of course, the more interesting question is what happens on the Turkish-Israeli front. Particularly since the flotilla incidents, things have been – we practically don’t have a relationship, and Israelis are interested in normalization. Although they don’t say it openly, I think Turks are also interested in normalization of some sort. It’s just a question of what price each party is willing to give.
Turkey’s conditions are very simple: lift the embargo in Gaza, you know, compensation and apology. These are not conditions Israelis can’t meet. They just also have a domestic policy, you know, domestic politics issue. So both sides have that. And with Israeli elections coming up, before this Gaza offensive I was thinking that something or another would start in the path towards normalization after the Israeli elections. However, I think that it’s clear that this Gaza issue has pushed it back at least by a couple of months.
Of course, you know, it would have to involve some sort of an apology because that’s been mentioned as a red line for Turkey. But it’s – the sense that I get from Israelis is that they are not entirely against an apology; in fact, they might be willing to consider, it’s just they are calculating what they will get in return.
But you know, Israelis, it seems to me, absolutely need Turkey in this changing region. So if I were to guess, I would think that there will be an apology at some point over the next year or year-and-a-half because I don’t see how they could, you know, find their way out of this equation with the evolving situation in Syria and, of course, the new Egypt.
Moving on to your question on Syria, it’s been 20 months, 19 months, this conflict, and it’s very clear to me what Turkey wants. I mean, they have – they want Assad gone and they want a proactive position for that to happen, from Americans and from the international community, but mostly from Americans.
I think I accompanied – (inaudible) – visit to Washington last February. And it was a very unique experience for me as a journalist, because for years I’ve covered Turkish-American relationship, and it was always Americans asking us to do things and Turks are like hand-wringing and, well, we’ll see, that will be difficult, there are too many risks, et cetera.
It was a complete role reversal. In fact, I wrote a column entitled “Turks are from Mars, Americans are from Venus” because, you know, all these ideas that were aired in that meeting, you know, can we do a no-fly zone, can we – they were suggestions, not really solid plans, but can we maybe – humanitarian corridor, can we do safe zones in different pockets, et cetera? America seemed like, well, let’s see, we can’t, it’s too risky, let’s sleep on it, let’s talk about it, let’s meet next month, maybe after the elections, et cetera.
So it is definitely a very amusing role reversal in the Turkish-American alliance. That said, it doesn’t change the strategic equation for Turkey. For right or wrong, they have named the situation in Syria as an utmost national security threat right now for various reasons.
I think that obviously there is concerns about PKK. It’s not a top concern; the real concern is instability. Right now there seems to be sort of, you know, the regime and the opposition seems to be at a standstill. I mean, there is the balance of power is just at a standstill. And unless something happens to break that balance of power, this could go on for years and years.
Of course, there is the fear of radicalization in Syrian society. Yes, Syrians do have a more (Levantine ?) version of Islam. But as you mentioned, the longer this goes on – it’s even happened in Bosnia, let’s not forget, at the heart of Europe.
There is also the concern about radicals. It’s – I think the Turkish sentiment is, at least people in Ankara seem to feel like that whole rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington now on radicals in al-Qaida is slightly exaggerated as a cover for, sort of, as an excuse almost. But it is a reality. No one is denying that al-Qaida or jihadists are there.
There is also, of course, significant, serious concerns about Iranian influence in Syria. I mean, now we have, you know, actual revolutionary guards fighting and Hezbollah fighting in on the field.
And of course, there is the sense that, I mean, leaving aside the moral issue, which is difficult to leave aside, especially for an Islamist government, but the moral issue is not so insignificant because look at how much time we spoke about 20 people dying in Gaza and now we have 35,000 in Syria. It’s not really – it’s not so easy to brush aside.
But leaving that aside, there is also the concern that I think we’re going to have to do something about this in any case, sooner or later, we and the international community and the Americans. We will have to find a solution to Syria in any case. The longer this drags on, the more difficult it’s going to get.
Having said that, it’s not – it’s also very clear to me that Turkey does not want to do anything alone. Turkey cannot do it alone and won’t do it alone. And it’s not a good idea for Turkey to do it alone.
It’s also clear to me that nobody, including Turkey, has an appetite for a serious military intervention. By that I mean, troops on the ground, operation, et cetera.
Instead, there is talk of, you know, can things be done outside, different, creative formulas? Can there be an effort to establish no-fly zone? Can we establish no-fly zones without sort of doing a, you know, proper – (inaudible) – offensive like in Libya? Can there be – you know, can we arm the opposition?
So far, Americans have been cautioning us about the opposition. Yes, you know, they do find weapons and stuff. But it’s small stuff. They don’t have – they’re not given the MANPADs and the missiles that would make a difference and create a tactical advantage against – (inaudible).
You know, but this – I think, what to do with the opposition and how to change the equation in Syria and whether or not to facilitate Assad’s removal from power is going to be the top agenda in the trans-Atlantic relationship between Turkey and the United States.
I do expect Turkish prime minister to try to go see Obama over the next six months. I think top on his agenda will definitely be Syria. OK, now you’re reelected, what are we going to do about this? I don’t know what Americans are going to say. I don’t know if there is an answer yet.
I think there are people interested in doing stuff. There are people who are not interested in stuff. There seems to be a hot debate within the administration. There are people outside the administration who want to do stuff. There are people who are sort of thinking, planning, looking into drafting other solutions, but there’s no political decision at the White House or in the new administration yet. So this is definitely going to be a tough issue to handle in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
So far, it’s been thought of “all or nothing.” Either we – you know, by – let me also say, it does also seem to me like both the U.S. military and the Turkish military is not really keen on doing something major. But you know, at the end of the day, it’s going to come to political decision and understanding.
And if – and let’s not forget, even, you know, helping – giving lethal assistance to the opposition would create – would help create safety zones, et cetera. There just is no political decision on either side about that.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you, Asli. If you will maybe allow me to respond a little bit as an American who’s, you know, in Washington watching the evolution in our own foreign policy.
I do think there is some new thinking on Syria, although I agree with you, I think it’s not clear that a decision has been taken on a different course of action. Certainly this movement, a political movement in terms of the Syrian opposition, helps.
But I do sense that the climate in Washington has shifted, that people are now looking at – you know, there were all these reasons why the U.S. administration did not want to arm the opposition related to, you know, escalating casualties, increased involvement of al-Qaida, spillover into other countries. And now what people are saying is, all those things have happened anyway. So you know, you have to start to reach a point where inaction becomes even more risky than action.
But I think we still have the situation of concern about the legitimacy of undertaking something since, of course, you know, multilateralism has been the core tenet of Obama foreign policy. And I think, though, you talked about creative solutions, and I think that people are starting to try to think around the Russian veto and think around, you know, ways in which things could be done, you know. And this very much, of course, would involve Turkey and the defense of Turkey and so forth by NATO.
So there are interesting conversations going on. But you know, I share your concern and maybe Rami’s concern that we’re not yet at a place where there’s a decision to move to a different stage in terms of international support.
I want to open things up now for questions from our participants. If you have a question, put up your hand, we have microphones. And I would ask you to please identify yourself and let me know if the question is for a specific panelist.
OK, perhaps I will – (chuckles) – start with some questions.
Hani, you jokingly referred to, you know, the possibility of a new caliphate, you know, being here in Istanbul and so forth. But I want you to say a little bit more on this about what do you see as the interaction between the – among the different political forces in Egypt. We’ve got various different Islamist political players. It’s not only the Brotherhood; it’s – (inaudible) – and others, you mentioned Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and so forth, and then also, of course, in the rest of the political spectrum, many different actors.
Do you see this as healthy and normal competition that’s to be expected in this post-revolutionary political atmosphere? Or some other people see it somehow as the Brotherhood or Islamists are dominating the situation and this is leading perhaps to a new authoritarian situation.
So what’s your view on it?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: I mean, first of all, I believe very deeply and I was in Cairo during the uprising, during the – (inaudible) – days, I was very often – (inaudible) – and this was not an Islamic revolution, this was not, by no means, an Islamist revolution.
In fact, I think the whole Arab Spring has shown that the myth that we lived with for 30 years that, you know, that Muslim majority peoples are fundamentally can only be explained by reference to Islam and that they’ve been ruled somehow by these Westernized elites and finally they’re coming into their own, I think the Arab Spring, definitely as I saw it in Egypt, exploded this whole myth.
People in Harare were not speaking about sharia, they were not speaking about the situation of the caliphate. They were speaking about freedom. They were speaking about human rights. They were speaking about equality between Muslims and Christians, equality between men and women.
I was just talking to a British Muslim in Cairo the other day, and he told me that the most poignant image that came out of the – (inaudible) – for him was Muslims doing Friday prayers and surrounded by a human shield of Egyptian cops to protect them while they are conducting their prayers. This was the kind of values, the kind of – but definitely, the revolution has not been realized.
The people who made the revolution, they were able to make the revolution after 30 years of the eradication, not only when authoritarian regime, of the eradication of politics in Egypt. And they were wholly unprepared.
Mr. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal who, you know, a very prominent Egyptian political analyst, he likened it to someone landing on the moon and then asking, what do you want as a reward, and he says, a falafel sandwich. It was not exactly that because I think that the young people who made the revolution knew what they wanted, but they knew it in terms of principles, in terms of general values. They wanted democratic Egypt, they wanted a modern Egypt, they wanted a progressive Egypt, a more just and fairer society and so on. And definitely, they didn’t want Mubarak’s – (inaudible) – state.
But they had no idea how to go about realizing. They had no organizations. They had no political savvy. They were good revolutionaries, but very bad politicians. And so the forces that were ready were able to take a revolution.
Now, to come to the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood – and we know this because actually the most informed critics of the Muslim Brotherhood come from within the Muslim Brotherhood.
So we know that in the past years, especially in 2008, the – (inaudible) – very conservative, so called, could be wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, almost completely seized the leadership of the group. And they were the people in charge of the organization so they had the ability to do this.
And while the so-called reformists, namely someone like Aboul Fotouh, like Mohammed Badie, who is deputy supreme guy, were basically the political, you know, the outside face of the Brotherhood. They were the people that were showing that the Brotherhood is not as scary as Mubarak would like to make people believe, and so on.
And they were – and these people were basically either, like – (inaudible) – taking over, or checked out. Eventually – (inaudible) – was kicked out. Aboul Fotouh was forced to resign, and so on. So we have a very conservative, very authoritarian-minded wing in the Brotherhood.
At the same time, I think the leadership of the Brotherhood – (inaudible) – probably motivated by two very opposite mind-sets. One is the feeling, again, which you see it echoing in a lot of places, this is an Islamic moment in the Arab world. So you know, they feel empowered, they feel well, now is the time, we’ve come into our own.
But I think also there is the sense, and they are very aware, that this will not last. That if they don’t grab as much as they can today, they won’t be able to do so tomorrow. And this is – has created – Muslim Brotherhood administration has been shockingly inept.
I was surprised. I’m not a friend of the Brotherhood, obviously, but I was surprised by the level of ineptitude, the degree to which there is no vision, no imagination, no creativity. And basically, what you’ve been seeing since Morsi came to power is try to get as much of the Mubarak state institutions, keep them as they are, as we’re seeing in the media, in my field especially, you know, it’s not – (inaudible) – the media, it’s not – (inaudible) – free the media, you know, create a better climate for the media. It’s (get ?) the media. And this is being done with all the state institutions.
But at the same time, this is not an Egypt that is very malleable. It’s not an Egypt where you can get away with these things. And at every single step they’re being resisted. They tried it with the judiciary; they were resisted. They somehow united the pro-Mubarak judiciary with the, you know, the so-called independent judiciary wing that had been fighting Mubarak for a long time. And they united them against them.
So it’s a very fluid situation. I don’t think they will get away with the kind of constitution they’re trying to push through. And I think we’re going to have, as I was saying, years of Egypt shifting to and fro, to and fro.
But let me make one – we referred to Aboul Fotouh, let me get back to Aboul Fotouh, because I think also there’s something very significant that’s been happening in Egypt since the revolution, which is the beginning of crystallization of a truly democratic trend within Islam.
And I think one of the most interesting expressions of this has been Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and his new party which was celebrated when it got legal recognition. They celebrated Harare – (inaudible) – and so young people were at the – (inaudible) – for, I don’t know – (inaudible). But in any case, but if you look at the critique that this so-called Strong Egypt Party – again, an unfortunate name – of Aboul Fotouh is their critique of the draft constitution of the last draft we’ve seen is amazing. It is consistently – I believe it’s the most – it’s the best critique that has come of the draft constitution that we’ve seen.
Aboul Fotouh, for an Islamist, this is someone who, until 2008, was a member of the Guidance Bureau. He says, yes, there is a right to atheism. There is a right – a Muslim has a right to convert to Christianity or to any other religion or to no religion if he wants.
And that constitution, for instance, there is – in the draft constitution, there is this article that says that the state should work towards bolstering cultural unity. And then Aboul Fotouh says, no, the state should defend the culture of diversity because Egypt is a culturally diverse country. It’s not – we do not want unity of – (inaudible) – and so on.
On the whole range of issues, a very democratic – and this is very important, I think, historic development in political Islam.
MS. DUNNE: And I think you’re right. And it’s all about the, sort of, the unleashing, I think, of Egyptian society that has happened.
I see that we actually do have some questions now. The first one is in the very back of the room. Please introduce yourself.
Q: Steve Hadley. A question about Iran. Many think the administration will try in the next few months to come up with a proposal to the Iranians, which would resolve the nuclear issue. If they do and are successful, what is the impact in the region? How would people react?
Similarly, if they try and fail and about a year from now there is some kind of limited military action by the United States against the Iranian enrichment program – a limited strike – what would be the impact, again, on the region and the Arab Awakening?
MS. DUNNE: Thank you, Steve. Maybe we’ll let each of our panelists say something.
Asli, would you like to begin, so the impact, what if a new diplomatic effort fails, and then what if there were a military strike?
MS. AYDINTASBAS: Well, I think Turkey is in a slightly conflicted position on your question about nuclear talks. Of course, they want a diplomatic solution. They are very much against war. They welcome – if there’s a – (inaudible) – as is the expectation, I understand, in your administration, they would welcome that.
On the other hand, they don’t want Syria sacrificed for the sake of a nuclear deal with Iran.
They also have problems with Maliki, as you might know, and they worry that that might be the price to pay. In other words, you know, that may end up something, a lost cause for Turkey as in Maliki might embolden his positions and Americans might, you know, end up giving Iraq to Iranians, which is almost, in the Turkish imagination, it’s almost what they’ve done by bolstering Maliki and not recognizing the Iraq problem.
Iraq is a problem. And Iraq is not stable. And Iraq is potentially explosive. But it’s not something that’s much discussed in Washington. And it’s something which has led us to do contingency planning and approach Kurds, you know, and become closer with Kurds, et cetera.
But in terms of the nuclear issue, I think overall Turkey does welcome nuclear talks with the caveat, of course, Syria must not be a gift to Iranians in return for a deal.
And that won’t be so easy to do in any case because Syria is not a situation that can easily be controlled by any, you know, back-door diplomacy by U.S.
Limited military action? All bets are off. I think that there is great concern about that. It would certainly make Turkish-Israeli normalization impossible. I think it would also complicate things on Syria. We have a, you know, single agenda right now, it’s Syria.
It definitely depends on how limited, of course, but I think that there is also concern about Iranian retaliation all over and God knows where. Not likely to be in Turkey, but I think everyone in the region is worried about what the – the day after what they’d do in Iraq here and there and what not.
But I think the short-term answer to the possibilities of limited military action is that it would make Turkish-Israeli relationship, you know, normalization an impossibility for foreseeable future.
MS. DUNNE: So Rami, so Asli raised, I think, you know, very interesting implications. I mean, there are implications for the region, even of a successful diplomatic engagement between the United States and around particularly if it involves the so-called “going big” option or a grand strategy that brings in other issues in the region.
So there’s that, or there’s the possibility of failed diplomacy and also the possibility of limited military action. How do all these various possibilities look from a Syrian perspective?
MR. NAKHLA: Exactly. Actually, I will answer the question from my field of expertise from the Syrian angle of this question. I don’t believe that Iran will – that the international – Iran will accept Syria as a gift to give up the nuclear program because it’s not an easy gift, it’s not guaranteed that even what the international community can do. Just stop supporting the opposition? They are already not supporting, but it’s going on in the ground. And the opposition already will be supported by – (inaudible) – by Qataris, by Islamists, by jihadists, by all of this.
So it’s not a secure gift for them. So that’s why I think this is not negotiable for them. They will gain nothing. The regime might fall at the end. So this is like – in particular – but I think Syria at the moment is looking for outside (border ?) conflict.
As you can see like, for the first time in, like, since the October war with Israel, it’s the first time where really the front is not – (inaudible) – (game ?). So Syria is really looking to spread the conflict to Lebanon, maybe to conflict with Israel. Maybe somehow they are crazy enough to do it, but just a limited interaction, just to, like, to somehow to get all Syrian people onboard again of this government to support them because there is an external threat to the national security now. It’s not internal.
That’s what the Syrian regime doing at the moment. But – so and somehow, any outside conflict, it will help them.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you.
Hani, give us an Egyptian view.
MR. SHUKRALLAH: Yes, I agree that a military strike against Iran would be very, very serious. I remember when we found out that Obama had won the election. I tweeted “well done, Obama, a big sigh of relief from Egypt.” And one of the main reasons – I have a – I admit, I have a soft spot for Obama, even though he’s been a bit of a disappointment.
But basically, it was because I feared that the – sorry – the name has escaped me. Romney, yes, I’m sorry about that. (Chuckles.) That Romney would – if Romney had won, he would have, you know, followed Netanyahu into this.
We really want – I mean, look, again, for years and years, the conventional wisdom in the West definitely it was the – (inaudible) – and the Bush discourse. The Arabs are obsessed with the West, the Arabs are obsessed with Israel, the Arabs, as a pretext were. In Harare and during the 18 days, you know Harare very well, you know the American embassy is just at the edge of the bridge. The embassy is just at the edge. No one even thought of, you know, touching them.
And really, we are now in the region at a time when we want to focus on our problems. So you know, the message to the Americans: Stay out of, you know, the radar, off the radar for a while. Because first of all, we all know that a military strike, a limited military strike, would be totally ineffective in terms of doing anything about the – of halting or damaging seriously the Iranian nuclear program. So it’s just a gesture.
And it suggests it’s a very damaging gesture because it encourages radicalism, encourages, you know, this – it revives this whole clash of civilizations, Islam against the West, us and them. And really, we don’t need this kind of thing.
MS. DUNNE: So it’s OK with Egypt if Iran has a nuclear weapon?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: Israel has whole stockpile. I think, you know, we have more to fear from Israel than we do from Iran. And definitely, I mean, OK, you know, we have – I don’t think we’ve exhausted the diplomatic and political means to find a way to at least bring that, keep that program within certain limits.
MS. DUNNE: OK. Thank you.
I think this – there are some other questions. Thank you.
Q: Question about Russia, basically to Ms. Aydintasbas and Mr. Nakhla.
MS. DUNNE: Could you just identify yourself?
Q: My name is Pierre Morel, former EU special representative, Central Asia. My question is, how do you read, with all this background description, the triangular relationship, because now it becomes a kind of complex triangle, about the specific position beyond the statements about similarities of views and so on? We know it’s not the case. So how would you read the interaction right now between Moscow, Damascus and Ankara? Thank you.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you. I think we’re going to take another question because we’re close to the end of the session. I saw – was there another question in the center of the room here? Yes.
Q: Yeah, hello Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. And I have a question about foreign policy for Asli, but very much welcome views from the Arab world as well, from Hani Shukrallah and Rami Nakhla.
The question is this: Did Turkey support the new order that is emerging as a result of the Arab awakening? Because – and it was represented by the only disciplined, organized party that was out there in all of these countries, which was the Muslim Brotherhood. Because it provided stability and, therefore, future commercial opportunities, how much role did the fact that there is an affinity between the ruling party here, the AK Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood play?
And the second question to that is, because it created a perception in the Arab world, as far as I know, and I spent some time in Iraq where this is very strong for obvious reasons, that Turkey is acting as a Sunni power in a very sectarian sort of prism kind of way. And I understand that this is a concern here. And I wonder what Turkey is doing to mitigate that particular perspective.
MS. DUNNE: OK, thank you.
Well, let’s start with Asli, if you could respond to both of these questions, and then the other panelists as well.
MS. AYDINTASBAS: I couldn’t exactly hear the Russia question, but let me answer in terms of the three-way relationship. I think that, yes, there is the Russian veto on doing anything on Syria. But I think the feeling in Ankara is that it’s also serving as a convenient excuse to not do anything. In other words, the Russian position is not insurmountable in the end. I mean, they have never really signed off on anything. They’ve not really signed off on the anti-missile shield that we placed in Kurecik.
So Russians, yes, they say no. But is it impossible to overcome or go about it? I doubt it. I think that it’s seen as kind of – I don’t think that there is the feeling that enough U.S. diplomatic effort has been spent to convince Russia.
But the Russians are very careful in terms of not having – not ruining the relationship with Turkey, and Turkey is very careful in terms of not ruining this strategic and economic relationship with Russia. In other words, both sides in the bilateral relationships are trying not to let Syria come in between.
I think one of the reasons, I think, Putin canceled his visit to Turkey was not to want a public disagreement with Turkey on the Syrian issue. So in both Ankara and Moscow, I think there is sort of, you know, “let’s not let Syria get in the way” kind of a feeling, because the economic ties are very significant.
And I think there is also a sense in Turkey that the Russians, if they saw that Assad was on his way out, would be willing to settle for a practical solution, for a plan B. It’s just that nobody has given them any indication that – by “international community” we usually mean United States, of course – (chuckles) – but you know, they don’t think that Americans are going to necessarily, you know, push for Assad’s removal at this point. They’re able to read the news and read the signs, et cetera. So that might change. And it’s not seen as an unchanging factor.
Iranians are more willing to dig in than Russians. I think Russians would be practical in the end.
Joost, why is Turkey excited about the Arab Spring, the new Arab revolutions? Of course, a certain amount of it is ideology, the Arab revolution, the Arab Spring is essentially an – (inaudible) – spring. And you know, it would be – it’s no secret that that’s an idea that’s very appealing to AKP government.
Another reason is, of course, sort of this new confidence, economic growth. There is a very different feeling in Turkey, new – (inaudible) – sentimental – (inaudible). There’s very much the sense, nobody says this officially, but there is very much the sense that we’re rebuilding the empire, you know, exerting Turkey’s former sphere of influence.
You know, you have films about 1453, you have a new, you know, construction project, popular construction project that’s called 1453. And the advertisement is, you know, like – (inaudible) – they met the conqueror, you know, the contractor, who is like Turkey’s Donald Trump, is like on a horse, like, galloping, et cetera. It’s funny, but this is resonating.
So part of it is also, you know, here we are wanting to play this imperial game, but we have about a century of a gap. We lost touch, we don’t know Arabs. We’ve lost – we don’t know these countries. But we don’t want to be left behind.
So reading the signs, well, they say, you know, there is a new era. Arab Spring is happening. Nobody is standing before the old regime, so that happened in Egypt fairly swiftly; it happened in Tunisia fairly swift; it happened in Libya, et cetera.
You know, when it came to Syria, we didn’t want to be, you know – of course, we – you know, I think people seriously felt, you know, a moral outrage, but also there is the fact that we don’t want to be frozen out of the imperial game if there is going to be one.
There’s also the opportunistic reasons.
Thirdly, there is the economic rationale. You know, we have benefited from our – the shift in our axis, if I could say it boldly. We have benefited economically hugely. Had it not been for the trade with Arab countries and, you know, money coming in from Muslim countries over the past few years, I think we would have suffered, we would have been more affected by the recession in Europe. That’s for sure.
So ideological, opportunistic and financial reasons altogether. But in terms of Sunni leadership, well, you know, there’s that criticism, sure, but people also like it. I mean, who doesn’t like Turkey being a counterbalance to Iran and Iraq? Who doesn’t like Turkey trying to sort of like be a counterbalance to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon?
So similarly, I think that people, when they complain about Turkey acting as a Sunni power, are also somehow secretly glad that there’s a Sunni power out there that’s trying to balance the very obvious Iranian outreach in these regions.
But I think that in Syria perhaps the reason that led the government to very quickly turn its back on Assad has something to do with Sunni sentiments. But in my observation, in their efforts to help the opposition, in essence, I don’t really think they acted as a Sunni power, although that criticism is made and the criticism is made that they’re too much, you know, Iran oriented, in essence, and in their – you know, I’ve also seen them trying to include as much as they can, and they haven’t succeeded, but I’ve also seen them trying to include secularist and secular figures and, you know, and Christians and all of it. You know, they were excited about George Sabra. They were really excited about – (inaudible) – et cetera.
So these people were also the favorites of Ankara. I don’t think they built a policy on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition, in the Syrian case. But it is a sectarian war out there. I mean, it did not – Turkey did not start this war, but it is out there, and it is a sectarian war.
So they talk of our reacting sectarian, well, it’s a sectarian war already.
MS. DUNNE: Thank you.
I want to give Rami and Hani each a chance to comment briefly on the roles of Turkey and also Russia in Iran, if you want to, but we’re out of time. So just briefly, please.
MR. NAKHLA: I’ll take less than one minute. I think now when we talk about the Russian, the question is not any more how we can get Russians onboard. Everybody gave up on this question. We will not get them onboard at the meantime.
The question at the – (inaudible) – is how we can do something around them. And that’s what’s happening right now. That’s why we are not going to the Security Council again. That’s why we – the European Union – (inaudible) – left the embargo – (inaudible) – to Syria.
And this is – also, the other question is, what is the worst that Russians can do if we moved on on this, just without them onboard?
So this is the equation at the moment, and that’s what people thinking of right now. And let’s see what the outcome might be. But Russians will not be onboard unless they are really sure asset is already down.
So the second question, the Turkish role, I think Turkey has played very interesting role and very useful role at the moment in the Syrian crisis. I think they absolutely help the opposition, they help the Syrian people. Yes, they have interests. They are not doing this in humanitarian – (inaudible). They have interests in the region. They have interests as influential in the region, in general.
But we understand that, but we are fine with it. Yes, they help establishing the Syrian National Council. We understand their influence on the Muslim Brotherhood, but we are fine with that.
Syrian people looking for support. They (put ?) their hand in the hand of al-Qaida, that’s true, because we are in crisis. And when we do not have the luxury at the moment to choose carefully our allies. We know their interests, but we have no other option but working with them.
Yes, Turkey is supporting Muslim Brotherhood. This is something that not – and they don’t even, like, hiding it. It has a Sunni dimension, their support. But as well, what they are trying to counter it, I think all the time the Turkish side they are trying to demonstrate their good intentions really toward the Syrian opposition by – as she just says, like, they really were trying to include secular, they were trying to include Christian.
And what I’m saying, they were trying to include. Doesn’t mean absolutely intervention, but they were doing it.
So and at the moment, they recognize the new commission. This is great opportunity. The SNC is established here and have great influence that they recognize.
So we – from – I think they really have good intention at the moment, and they want this to be ended.
MS. DUNNE: Thanks.
Hani, what do you – what’s your comment on the roles of these three, of Turkey, Iran and Russia? And what does this mean for Egypt’s own role? With whom will Egypt be working on these issues?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: I agree with Asli and Rami that Russia and Syria could be sidestepped, that it really depends on political will basically from the United States. And I think – actually, this is a bit surprising or paradoxical – if you want to cut down Iran, help get rid of Bashar and help cut down Hezbollah then to size in Lebanon, and then you can negotiate with Iran much more effectively. But that’s by the way.
As for Turkey, let me just recount the visit by President Erdogan to Egypt in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood and even some of the Salafis, they went to meeting at the airport and it was a celebration. You know, the Caliph is coming, you know. (Chuckles.)
And then Erdogan comes in and he talks to them, and he tells them, you have to accept a secular government. And they were almost, you know, get out of here, we don’t know you.
So it’s not – I don’t – definitely, you know, there is this. But I think Muslim Brotherhood here is very different than the dominant trend within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today. And obviously, Turkey, as a regional power, probably the most stable and dynamic regional power at the moment, is going to pursue its interests.
It has – it’s been blocked in Europe, but it’s got this whole region that’s opened up for it. And –
MS. DUNNE: And it’s the largest single outside investor in Egypt. No?
MR. SHUKRALLAH: Exactly. And our biggest Muslim Brotherhood entrepreneur, actually, his main business is importing furniture from Turkey. So thank you.
MS. DUNNE: OK, thank you very much. The next session is a lunch session. It’s held in the next room starting at 1:30. But before you go, I want you to please join me in thanking our three panelists, Rami Nakhla, Asli Aydintasbas and Hani Shukrallah for this discussion. Thank you.