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Pact for stability: The Egyptian role in a joint Arab force

The history of collective ‎Arab action is rife with instances of projects crumbling before the first ‎hurdle

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 11 May 2015
Saudi Arabia
File photo: Saudi soldiers fire artillery toward three armed vehicles approaching the Saudi border with Yemen in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: AP)
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Views: 3194

Necessity is the mother of invention: the adage applies perfectly to ‎proposals to create a joint Arab force. The threats facing Arab states ‎are too great for individual countries to handle alone and a joint Arab ‎force is now a prerequisite for successful defence of the region.

Plans to establish such a force have gradually taken shape since it was ‎first mooted during the Sharm El-Sheikh economic summit in March. An ‎extraordinary meeting of Arab chiefs of staff held less than a month ‎after the Sharm summit saw action taken to put the project into ‎effect.

Planning was handed over to a committee of experts reporting ‎to the Joint Defence Council, a body comprising Arab defence and ‎foreign ministers. That it is on target to produce a framework ‎agreement within four months illustrates how seriously the project is ‎being taken.

General Mohamed Ali Bilal, the commander of Egyptian forces during ‎the war to liberate Kuwait, stresses that the political, economic and ‎military dimensions of the project demand a degree of political ‎harmony among its founders.

“When President El-Sisi proposed the initiative it was first referred to ‎the foreign ministry and then to the Arab summit. Subsequently it ‎was discussed on the military level by chiefs-of-staff, after which it ‎was submitted to the committee of experts.”

The Resolute Storm coalition, says Bilal, has been interpreted by ‎some as a blueprint for the joint Arab force despite Cairo and Riyadh ‎insisting this is not the case. Egypt had urged a political solution to ‎the Yemeni crisis, something Saudi Arabia had discounted. Such ‎divergence of views could easily undermine a joint force.

"Countries such as the UAE could work well with Egypt,” says Bilal. ‎‎“The most likely scenario is that the force will comprise troops from a ‎limited number of countries that agree on security matters.”

The project will face a number of challenges; the history of collective ‎Arab action is rife with instances of projects crumbling before the first ‎hurdle.

Although the recent meeting of the Arab chiefs of staff gave a ‎positive impression - it was the first of its kind for more than five ‎decades - similar experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the ‎‎1990s, met with failure. Arab states have singularly failed to forge a ‎coherent defence bloc.

It should be noted that Egypt’s proposals ‎received a lukewarm response at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit even though they ‎were ultimately included in the resolutions. Riyadh saw hints of ‎Nasserist pan-Arabism in the initiative and only reassessed its ‎position towards Egypt’s proposals for a joint force when Pakistan ‎and Turkey backed out of the Resolute Storm coalition.

Iraq expressed reservations despite the fact that it is the country that ‎could best use the services of a joint Arab force. Baghdad chose to ‎ignore the way Arab-Iranian tensions are playing out in Iraq and ‎instead argued that the idea of a joint force had not been adequately ‎discussed at the Arab level. Algeria, meanwhile, opposed the idea ‎from the start.

There is a degree of ambiguity about the nature of the force. Arab ‎League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi, President Abdel-Fattah El-‎Sisi and the Chief-of-Staff of the Egyptian Army General Mahmoud Hegazi ‎agree that the aim is not to create an Arab alliance or a force that ‎could be used against other nations. And while there are no ‎differences over the name – what is being discussed is universally ‎referred to as the Joint Arab Force – there are differences over its role.

‎Is the aim to create an Arab equivalent of NATO? Are the troops to ‎serve as a rapid intervention force or a counter terrorist unit? If the ‎latter is the case how is terrorism to be defined? Arabs have ‎frequently been at odds about this. Egypt has designated the Muslim ‎Brotherhood a terrorist organisation while Saudi Arabia has not. ‎Saudi Arabia, but not Cairo, has branded the Houthis a terrorist ‎group.

There are, too, legal aspects to be considered in setting up such a ‎force, says Ayman Salama, a member of the Egyptian Council for ‎Foreign Affairs and a professor of international law.

“The terminology must be precise,” he says. “Perhaps the designation ‎multinational force is best since the evidence suggests it will have a ‎flexible composition and is unlikely to be a permanent force."

And when would the force be deployed?

At the chiefs-of-staff council meeting it was suggested that intervention would have to be ‎requested by the leadership of the country concerned, and could only ‎be undertaken without violating the sovereignty of that country and in ‎accordance with the rules of the Arab League and the UN.

Yet such ‎conditions could raise problems when it comes to dealing with future ‎Arab uprisings. Should they be treated as insurrections if the ‎authorities in the country concerned request intervention? Or should ‎they be treated as mass demonstrations by populations aspiring to ‎change?

Other problems emerge when addressing crises in the region. Arab ‎states, after all, take widely divergent positions over a range of ‎pressing concerns. Even the countries that are spearheading the ‎project to create a joint force - Egypt and Saudi Arabia – hold ‎divergent views over a number of issues, not least the Syrian crisis. ‎Both oppose the regime in Damascus but disagree over how to deal ‎with it.

Regional and international alliances further complicate the picture. ‎Most Gulf countries are bound by international defence pacts with the ‎US, the UK and France, delineating a zone of Western influence. And ‎there are regional alliances, between Qatar and Turkey, and Iraq and ‎Iran.

“Gulf and Saudi attempts to reevaluate their strategic alliance with the ‎US in light of Washington’s support for the forces of rebellion in the ‎Arab region were only ever halfhearted and they soon reverted to ‎business as usual in the relationship,” says military expert General ‎Talaat Musallam.

“Experience shows the US cannot be sidelined or neutralised. Storm ‎of Resolve is the best testimony to this. The Fifth Fleet acted beyond ‎its intelligence role, moving into operational mode when Iranian naval ‎vessels entered the Gulf of Aden, moving close to Saudi and Egyptian ‎naval vessels..”

Will any joint Arab force be contingent on US support? It is an ‎important question given that Arab-US military manoeuvres are much ‎larger than inter-Arab exercises.

The project could also attract accusations of double standards, ‎especially from Arab nationalists who will press for the force to act as ‎a deterrent to Israeli aggression.

“Any contention that a joint Arab force will have nothing to do with ‎the Israeli threat to Arab states is unrealistic,” says Sobhi Esseila, ‎director of the Israeli studies unit at Al-Ahram Centre of Political and ‎Strategic Studies.

“The creation of such a force implies a deterrent ‎concept against any potential enemy and, hence, against potential ‎threats from Israel or Iran. In the past the Arab League was the focus ‎of criticisms over its inability to confront Israel. Yet the joint force is ‎being built under the Arab League umbrella. In the event of an Israeli ‎attack against Arabs why shouldn’t intervention be an option?”?

There are also structural challenges in building such a force. It will ‎comprise 40,000 to 60,000 troops drawn from participant countries ‎according to their capacity. Sources close to the talks in the Arab ‎League say offices will be distributed among Arab states along the ‎same lines as the Arab League, with Cairo serving as the headquarters ‎for the command and secretariat.

But while Cairo and Riyadh figure ‎prominently in the picture, what of countries such as Iraq and Algeria ‎that may not be represented due to their particular security ‎circumstances ?

Flexibility over the make-up of the force also begs a number of ‎questions. Is it possible for the force to reflect the way Arab political ‎positions shift, overlap and diverge? Will countries be able to ‎participate, withdraw and then rejoin? Making participation optional ‎would certainly pose challenges in terms of training and the conduct ‎of exercises.

Salama raises interesting questions over the mandate of the force. ‎How will its tasks, duties, responsibilities and scope of activities be ‎set? Structurally, there is a need to determine whether the force is ‎subordinate to a regional organisation - the Arab League - or is a ‎multinational force independent of such an umbrella. In the event of ‎the former, would the Arab League secretary-general also be the ‎force’s secretary-general, able to hold consultations at the highest ‎political levels?

Salama also suggests that the Arab League should consider the ‎substance of UN Charter Chapter VIII and, perhaps, amend its own ‎charter accordingly.

Chapter VIII clearly states that nothing in the UN ‎Charter precludes regional agencies acting to maintain international ‎peace and security provided that such activities are consistent with ‎the principles of the UN Charter. It also states that the Security ‎Council will encourage the peaceful settlement of local disputes ‎through regional agencies but that any enforcement by such agencies ‎requires authorisation from the Security Council.

Problems could also be posed by the lack of regional structural ‎homogeneity. The Arab world comprises the Gulf, North African and ‎sub-Saharan states, with Egypt, at the locus of their intersection. ‎Creating a joint Arab force means this asymmetry would have to be ‎addressed.

Differences in the military creeds of Arab armies could also affect the ‎performance of a joint force. Some national armies have been deeply ‎shaken and weakened structurally and are unlikely to be able to offer ‎much to an emergent joint force. The Iraqi army, for example, is still ‎in the process of being rebuilt and continues to suffer from ‎sectarianism in its composition. The Yemeni army was built on the ‎basis of tribal and clan affiliations for which reason its regiments have ‎been dragged into the civil war.

Military observers and analysts see three possible scenarios for the ‎future a joint force. One is that it will evolve into a defence pact. The ‎Arab region is clearly undergoing a process of reconstitution and a ‎joint force, whatever its inconsistencies, could transform into a pact ‎conditioned by internal and external threats. In this case any problems ‎at the military and structural level are likely to prove less intransigent ‎than political differences. With respect the latter, the possibility that ‎countries opposed to a joint force might create counter defence pacts ‎cannot be ruled out.

A second scenario is that the joint force will be held hostage to ‎regional trends towards stability or crisis. The correlation need not be ‎direct. Stability will not automatically herald the end of any joint ‎force. Indeed, this could be when such a force is needed the most, ‎providing a strategic guarantee for the continuation of stability. ‎Conversely, tensions and crises are not necessarily conducive to the ‎survival of such a force which could ultimately collapse beneath their ‎weight.

In the third scenario a joint force ends up as little more than an ‎outward form. Its institutionalisation within the framework of the ‎Arab League freezes it into the condition of other institutions under ‎the League’s umbrella - structures with no actual role.

Ultimately, a number of balances need to be struck, both political and ‎military. Politicians are the ones who declare war and peace and they ‎are the ones who must determine how the force is funded, give orders ‎in the event of a threat and determine the administrative hierarchy of ‎the force, all of which are potentially thorny issues. At the same time, ‎strategic and military considerations obviously need to be observed in ‎the force’s structure and composition

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly 

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Bazaza Afandi
11-05-2015 03:13am
We have real enemies
El Sisi is working very hard to bring Egypt back to its old glorious position in the world. He is not just wanting to be a dictator. All genuine Egyptians know that. Please cooperate to save Egypt Tahia Misr
Comment's Title

10-05-2015 04:33pm
The REAL threat …
YESTERDAY, The Arab Israeli conflict was a real threat, though it could have been resolved by negotiation, as Sadat has proven for Egypt. TODAY, the Arabs are manufacturing a conflict and threat that doesn’t exist to justify military build-up and another 50 years of squandering of economic and social development. What is the threat now? A few terrorists? A shameful Shia-Sunni squabble? Or a Saudi bruised ego and realization of irrelevance as the US no longer needs their Oil? The REAL threat in the Arab world is mediocre dictatorial rulers who see military build-up and creating a phantom enemy as a way to strengthen their grip on power. As with most 3rd world dictators; they are blind to and incapable of creating any economic or social development for their people, which might help their re-elections, INSTEAD, they manufacture conflicts and tribal wars to cement their dictatorship. EGYPT doesn’t need to be sucked in this futile 3rd world spiral, we have a future to build!
Comment's Title
11-05-2015 07:59pm
Who’s kidding “Mr. Bazzaza”
You say “we will lose our culture … we will live in ignorance and poverty” we WILL not, our people are ALREADY living in ignorance and poverty! What culture sir? The one that promotes religious extremism and humiliation of women? We will be happy to trade all that for Science, Education, Food Security, Jobs, Freedom of religion, Respect for women, and Rule of law.
Bazaza Afandi
11-05-2015 03:11am
No we have military threats too
Don't kid your self. There are risks facing us. If we allow the Extremist to control the area by taking land piece by piece, we will lose our culture and consequently our future. We will all be living in in ignorance and poverty. Our current natural resources will not sustain us without modernizing our lives. Sadat fought a war and won it. That is why we got sinai back, not because of negotiations.

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