By Samara Greenberg
WASHINGTON, D.C. –A delegation from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) made its first official visit to the United States this week, where it has spent time in New York and Washington, DC talking to think tank experts and White House officials about the Brotherhood’s growing role in Cairo.
“The purpose of the visit is to engage the American people on issues of mutual concern in international relations, reassure [the] business community of the prospects of investments and economic growth in democratic Egypt, and boost American tourism to Egypt,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s English language website reported. In other words, the FJP is trying to assuage American fears regarding its political ambitions and depict itself as a moderate group that has the interest of all Egyptians at heart.
The delegation arrived in the U.S. after ruffling feathers by fielding a candidate for president in Egypt. The FJP previously said it wouldn’t do so. That candidate, Khairat al-Shater, this week declared that introducing sharia law would be his “first and final project and objective” as president, and that he would create a special entity to assist parliament in the process. Walking back from that announcement, at an event this week at Georgetown University FJP lawmaker Abdul Mawgoud Dardery said that the party is dedicated to the objectives of sharia law rather than its specific practice. “The principles are universal: freedom, human rights, justice for all,” he said.
But Dardery just last month also said that the American non-profit groups in Egypt that made headlines after being arrested were working toward “a type of democracy that will not bring Islamists to power, and this is wrong.” And one must wonder what Dardery, or presidential candidate al-Shater for that matter, thinks on the recent jailing of a 17-year-old Christian boy in Egypt for publishing cartoons on his Facebook page that “insulted Islam and its Prophet,” according to the court. Perhaps someone should ask him while he’s in town.
Doublespeak from the FJP at this point should be expected, and hopefully the American officials and experts meeting this week with the Islamist party’s delegates are aware of that. More importantly, when it comes to U.S. policy, the party must be judged on its past, present, and future actions rather than on what its delegates may say.
Al Qaeda in Africa
Analysts are growing concerned that al-Qaeda — under pressure in its long-time hideouts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq — is looking towards Africa, seeking to capitalize on the instability there to regroup and reorganize. According to a recent study by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Africa represents a fertile ground for a diminished ‘Al-Qa’ida-core’ to…re-launch its mission of global jihad.”
The release of the report is particularly timely, given recent events in Mali. On March 22, rebel soldiers mounted a political coup in the capital, Bamako, ousting elected President Amadou Toumani Toure for his inability to equip the army to suppress the growing Tuareg insurgency in the north. The insurgents, fighting to carve out a new country in the region, were recently energized by the return of some 2,000 Tuareg fighters from Libya where they worked as mercenaries for Moammar Qaddafi. Since the ouster of Mali’s president, however, the Tuareg rebels have taken control over several large towns, including the ancient town of Timbuktu.
On Wednesday, France warned that the Tuareg rebellion is playing into the hands of local al-Qaeda units. The militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has since taken over Timbuktu and declared the imposition of sharia law there. According to one resident, the Islamists have prevented bars from opening, and women in the secular city are now wearing headscarves. In addition, three of the four leaders of al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch — Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam — were reportedly seen in Timbuktu on Tuesday.
According to the RUSI report, aside from Mali, recent “attacks in Nigeria, coupled with [the] ongoing insurgency in Somalia…underline that the jihadist challenge may be migrating to Somalia, Kenya, north Nigeria and the borderlands of some of the vast territories of West Africa.” In Nigeria, the radical Islamist group of Boko Haram, tied to AQIM, is blamed for more than 360 deaths in 2012 alone. And in February, the Islamist militant group wreaking havoc in Somalia, al-Shabab, announced its official merger with al-Qaeda.
There’s good news to take home from these reports: The U.S. war against al-Qaeda in its traditional safe houses has weakened the group. But if Washington and its allies aren’t quick to turn and assist in fighting the growing al-Qaeda problem in African countries, they may soon have a new problem on their hands.
PLO honors Helen Thomas
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, honored former White House correspondent Helen Thomas in an award ceremony on Sunday. Maen Erekat, the PLO representative in Washington, hosted a dinner at his residence in an event that recognized Thomas for her “stand against the occupation” and “long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way.”
In addition, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, presented Thomas with an award on behalf of Abbas for “all of her actions supporting Palestine in the West.”
Of course, Helen Thomas is most remembered as the correspondent who was captured on video saying that Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany . . . and America and everywhere else.” She soon apologized, but later told an interviewer that she said “exactly what I thought.”
At the time, her remarks were praised by Hamas: “No doubt that Thomas Helen [sic] has told the truth that everybody in the world knows,” Hamas’s website read. “[The] Peace process will be successful, only when Israel get[s] out of Arab Areas, Golan and occupied Palestine, then we can say that peace is happily achieved…”
Apparently Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO, Israel’s supposed partner in peace, agrees.
Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren responded by stating he is “appalled” by the ceremony. “This atrocious act is an indication of the Palestinian Authority’s failure to meet the basic requisites of peace,” he said.
According to reports “dozens of diplomats and journalists” attended the ceremony on Sunday. Their names have not been made public.
It’s not all that surprising that the PLO and Mahmoud Abbas would honor Helen Thomas; the Palestinian Authority under Abbas is known to name streets after Palestinian terrorists and incite hatred against Israel and Jewish people through TV programming and school lessons. But in honoring her, they remind why the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is at an impasse.
Trouble in the Sudans
Tensions between Sudan and the months-old South Sudan are on the rise. For the last week, the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum has bombed various southern areas, including oil fields, military positions, and villages along the countries’ disputed border. Khartoum has also accused its southern neighbor of an incursion into the north — a claim the south flatly rejected.
Delegations from both countries are currently in Ethiopia to discuss security issues. Khartoum, however, failed to send the chief of its security delegation, stalling talks. In addition, a meeting scheduled for April 3 between the two presidents — Salva Kiir in the south and Omar al-Bashir in the north — was called off by the latter due to border fighting. During the meeting, the countries were expected to finalize agreements on citizenship and border demarcation. South Sudan has said that the invitation to negotiate still stands.
Also on the negotiating agenda for the presidents is the question of how the Sudans will share oil revenue. South Sudan’s secession removed 75% of the north’s oil fields, but the oil-rich south is landlocked and its pipelines run through the north. Earlier this year, the south’s government in Juba shut down oil production after Khartoum seized oil as compensation for what it says are unpaid transit fees.
South Sudanese President Kiir reached out to President Obama, asking him to pressure Khartoum to return to peace talks and end the violence. According to a White House statement, Obama “asked President Kiir to ensure that South Sudan’s military exercises maximum restraint and is not involved in or supporting fighting along the border.” The UN and U.S. fear the clashes could re-ignite a civil war between the countries.
The Israel-Azerbaijan connection
According to a report out this week in Foreign Policy magazine, Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its southern airbases on Iran’s northern border from which it could potentially launch airstrikes against Iran. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior administration official reportedly said in early February, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”
Azerbaijan quickly denied the claims, and a senior official said that the allegations were “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.”
Azeri-Iranian ties have been strained in recent months over the former’s relations with Israel. At the end of February, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi called a meeting with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Tehran and warned him not to let Israel use Azerbaijan to stage an attack. In a later meeting, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev confirmed that his country would not do so.
But according to Foreign Policy, Baku could still keep its word and provide Israel with essential support, such as allowing search-and-rescue units inside Azerbaijan or for Israeli bombers to land there after a strike, eliminating Israel’s problem of refueling its jets midflight to ensure a safe return home. According to the report, an intelligence officer noted that Washington is “not happy about” Israel’s alleged colluding with Azerbaijan.
On Thursday, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton accused the Obama administration of leaking the information to pressure Israel against attacking Iran. Bolton noted that he lacked proof that it was “an administration-orchestrated leak”, but said it would be “consistent” in a plan by the administration to deter the Israelis, as revealing “very sensitive, very important information” could frustrate a planned attack. inFOCUS contributor Yoel Guzansky at the Institute for National Security Studies agreed. In speaking to ABC News he said, “It seems like a big campaign to prevent Israel from attacking.”
On the other hand, such leaked information could perhaps work to deter Iran from its nuclear path out of a realization that a military strike is indeed on the horizon.
Azerbaijan and Israel have held close ties since the mid-1990s, somewhat due to both countries’ distrust of Iran. And Iran’s outrage at Baku’s continuing relationship with Israel may be pushing the allies closer together.
“The more pressure applied by Iran, the more they unveil plots to carry out terror attacks on Azerbaijani embassies, the more they [Azeris] are co-operating with us,” an Israeli official said of the matter.
Samara Greenberg is a Senior Research Associate at the Jewish Policy Center and Deputy Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. Her writings may be found at www.jewishpolicycenter.org