How to view the year 2019 that is about to come to an end? It is not always easy to pass a definitive judgement on international events and developments in a certain period of time. Neither is it easy to deal with the totality of world events across the globe in one article, however long it could be. The task becomes all the more challenging when experts, commentators, writers and political scientists are kindly requested to be as brief as possible.
Looking back on the past 12 months, I believe that the international system has been struggling to work out permanent solutions to armed conflicts, crises and unresolved questions concerning the directions of the future world order.
Egypt, the Middle East and the Arab world are, more or less, where they were 12 months earlier as far as regional questions are concerned (Syria, Libya, Yemen, democratic transition across the region, and the confrontation with Iran), including the central question of Palestine. The Trump administration has promised the world that it would come up with the “ultimate deal” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last time US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked when would the US administration release its plan, he replied when the United States thinks the time is right.
In the meantime, the US administration, in the course of the outgoing 2019, has left no stone unturned to torpedo the two-state solution. On 18 November, Pompeo announced that the Trump administration no longer considers Israeli settlements inconsistent with international law. Meeting Pompeo in Lisbon on 4 December, the Israeli prime minister thanked the US secretary of state for this decision and pointed out that he believes the decision “actually advances the cause of peace”. A sure encouragement for Israel to exercise its “sovereignty” over Zone C in the West Bank. On the other hand, the United States, last March, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. These American gifts were meant to favour the re-election of the Israeli prime minister to a fifth term in office.
However, the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution Friday, 6 December, in support of the two-state solution, condemning unilateral moves on both sides that would undermine the chances of implementing such a solution.
The year 2019 began with an eight-country tour by Pompeo in the Middle East that included visits to the six member countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Iraq. In Cairo, Pompeo said Iran is the new enemy for Middle Eastern countries. In the new regional context, Israel becomes the “ally” and Iran the targeted “enemy”. The “Warsaw Process”, as Pompeo calls it, has replaced the peace process based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967. Meanwhile, Bahrain hosted a workshop for “economic prosperity” in the Middle East. At the conclusion of the workshop, a $50 billion plan was announced. The share of Egypt in the plan is $9 billion. Neither Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority received an invitation to participate.
As if by coincidence, the month of June 2019 witnessed an escalation in the Gulf where unidentified vessels began attacking oil tankers and Saudi Arabian oil installations have been targeted by missiles with lots of speculation as to who ordered the attacks, and from where they came. The United States and some European countries and Saudi Arabia have no doubt that Iran was behind the unprecedented attacks on these oil installations. The Iranians downed an American drone in the midst of the Gulf escalation.
On Monday, 17 June, then acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said that “The United States does not seek conflict with Iran.” “We will continue to monitor the situation… and make advancements to force levels as necessary given intelligence… and credible threats.”
The year ends with the US administration considering expanding its military footprint in the Gulf. The purpose is to counter Iran.
When Pompeo met Binyamin Netanyahu in Lisbon, 4 December, according to the US State Department the two reaffirmed the following elements in their regional policies:
- Reaffirming the strength and the importance of the US-Israel bilateral relationship;
- Coordinating to counter Iran’s “destabilising influence in the Middle East”;
- Affirming the importance of economic cooperation with “regional partners”;
- Ensuring Israel’s security.
Meanwhile, the Arab world witnessed the ouster of long-established rulers and regimes in a wave of mass popular protests claiming freedom from authoritarianism and bad governance.
In Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir was pushed out of power and a civilian-military setup has been put in place in a transition to a full democratic regime in the span of the next three years.
In Algeria, the hirak — the popular movement — that led to former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika renouncing a fifth term is still mobilised and demanding a complete overhaul of the political system in place since independence in 1962, despite presidential elections decreed by the military as a way of putting Algeria on the road of a new regime of political governance that meets the aspirations of younger generations born years after the fight for independence.
The same winds of change have swept Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and even beyond the Arab world, in Hong Kong, Chile and Bolivia.
If the mass popular protests and uprisings across the region from West to East have been grounded in economic grievances, still the fact remains that the Middle East and the Arab world is going through a deep transformation that will be long and, at times, very challenging. The ruling elites in Arab countries have no other choice but to respect popular aspirations for freedom and good governance. The alternative is more political instability and more economic dislocation and social marginalisation.
The year 2019 celebrated four major historical events that have shaped the post-World War II international system, and are expected to play a determining role in laying out the contours of the international system in the decades to come, if not to the end of the 21st century.
The United Nations celebrated, in September, its 75th anniversary. It was an occasion to discuss global governance, and putting governance at the centre of the global agenda.
China marked with pomp and a show of assertive power, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, on the opposite side of the world, NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — celebrated in London its 70th anniversary 4 December with a joint declaration highlighting unity of purpose despite fissures in the alliance and uncertainties about its future role in a changing international system. The basic question for NATO in the years to come is to arrive to a consensus on new “security challenges”. French President Emmanuel Macron put it succinctly when he said that “Russia is a threat in certain areas. It is also a neighbour.”
President Trump, who earlier in his mandate called NATO “obsolete”, tweeted after the conclusion of the London Summit that, “NATO will be richer and stronger than ever before.”
What would most characterised the 70th anniversary is that NATO formally — a move which is unprecedented — recognised the rise of China as a major challenge for the organisation.
As far as Russia is concerned, the summit designated land, naval and air units that would be considered a central part of NATO’s response to any possible future Russian threat. Furthermore, member countries agreed on launching a “Reflection Process” to shape the alliance’s future strategy. This decision was probably in response to a declaration by the French president that NATO is facing “brain death”, a declaration President Trump called “very nasty”.
One of the most important anniversaries held in 2019 was one that celebrated progress over darkness, freedom over totalitarianism and dictatorship; an anniversary that holds special political relevance to Arab uprisings this year and throughout the decade. It was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of liberty over tyranny. The forces of human progress set in motion 30 years ago finally reached the Arab world.
At the G-20 Osaka Summit in Japan last June, Japanese and European leaders stressed their attachment to multilateralism, and signalled that they would push back on Trump’s constant defiance of international agreements and consensus — for instance, the withdrawal of the United States from an important strategic agreement with Russia on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, as announced mid-year.
It is a message that Egypt shares.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly