Late last month, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met in Beirut to discuss the 11-day conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza Strip. While the conflict was the topic of conversation, the discussion also focused on counterbalancing Egypt’s growing role in the region, with the aim of boosting Iran’s regional influence. The North African country played an important mediating role during the recent conflict, helping to broker a ceasefire, and its regional power appears to be growing. Given this, Iran perceives Egypt as a major threat to its geopolitical agenda.
The recent 11-day conflict is the latest in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. At least 254 people were killed along with immense infrastructure damage in both Israel and the Gaza Strip. While Egypt played a critical role in negotiating the ceasefire, the country has been in this situation before. In 2014, it helped broker a truce after weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. Over the past year, numerous Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, have normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, sparking backlash from the Palestinian territories. This placed Egypt in a unique position to broker peace between the two warring parties.
During the recent talks between Nasrallah and Haniyeh, however, the two leaders sought to undermine Egypt’s role in the current ceasefire and counterbalance its broadening influence. This is because Egypt’s geopolitical agenda is not aligned with Tehran, as Iran is the primary backer of Hamas and Hezbollah, something Egypt is firmly against. Hamas is a militant group based in the Gaza Strip, receiving backings from Qatar and Iran. Tehran supplies Hamas with weapons and funding and intends to exert control over the conflict’s mediation efforts. Similarly, Iran also backs Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and designated terrorist organization based in Lebanon. Hezbollah has established significant political and military power in the country, and it has promoted Iranian ideals in the region, including anti-Western sentiment. Both Hamas and Hezbollah act as proxies for Iran in the Middle East.
According to individuals familiar with the June dialogue, the two leaders discussed how they could align Iran and Hamas’ regional agendas and continue to promote Iranian influence in the Middle East in the wake of normalization efforts with Israel. Haniyeh particularly expressed an interest in obfuscating Egypt’s role in establishing a ceasefire between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Israel. In doing this, Iran would be able to demonstrate it retains control over Hamas, and it would be able to counterbalance Egypt and Israel’s expanding influence in the region.
The recent talks between Nasrallah and Haniyeh are a strong reflection of Iran’s desire to continue expanding its prowess in the Middle East and undermining the presence of Egypt.
Late last year, the Turkish government issued a tax fine to a leading opposition newspaper, Sözcü, which amounted to TL 14.5 million ($1.8 million). According to representatives from the paper, the penalty was based on unsubstantiated claims made by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Since Turkey’s failed coup in 2016, the Turkish government has been waging war against free speech. The country’s record on journalism and press freedom has declined significantly. Foreign media outlets have come under significant scrutiny, and the government has developed a reputation for jailing critics and anyone opposing the administration. The government’s efforts to quash dissent have impacted both online and offline speech. Activists and civil society organizations worldwide have called on the government to respect fundamental rights and guarantee the free and open flow of information.
Today, Turkey holds one of the world’s worst records on press freedom and journalist safety. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries. Since the attempted coup in 2016, almost 200 news outlets have closed, and the government has jailed approximately 138 Turkish journalists, many of whom are in pre-trial detention. Government-affiliated organizations now run nearly 95% of Turkish media.
The Turkish government introduced numerous legislative changes that significantly impact online and offline speech. In 2019, the government introduced a law requiring web streaming services and news broadcasters to obtain state-issued licenses. The law came after the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a state-funded think tank, issued a report claiming foreign media outlets reflect significant bias in their Turkish-language coverage. Later that year, the government issued a court order that blocked 136 websites and social media accounts affiliated with individuals and organizations critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling party. The block impacted outlets such as the independent news website, Gazette Fersude.
Late last year, a Turkish court demanded leftist daily newspaper Evresnel to remove an article that claimed one of the president’s advisors forged their high school diploma. The court justified its decision using the “right to be forgotten,” a framework that asserts that any individual should be able to request the removal of content online that portrays them in a harmful or inaccurate manner. The right to be forgotten framework is widely implemented across the European Union. Some technology policy advocates view the framework as a mechanism for promoting user privacy. However, press freedom advocates such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have warned that governments could use the principle to suppress journalism, as in Turkey.
The right to be forgotten requirement is part of a broader law passed last June. The law requires social media companies with over 1 million Turkish users to open offices, hire locally-based representatives, and localize Turkish users’ data, or face significant fines, advertising bans, or website throttling. Additionally, under the law, social media companies must respond to court-ordered requests to remove or block content within 24 hours and user requests to remove or block content within 48 hours, or risk facing fines of between 5 and 10 million Turkish Lira. This raises significant freedom of expression concerns, especially as the government has begun expanding its use of this law to censor content online that is critical of the government. According to a Free Web Turkey report published earlier this year, 42% of news items blocked between November 2019 and October 2020 directly mentioned the Turkish president, his family, or officials of the AKP.
The silencing of critics and dissenters is everpresent in Turkey and independent unbiased media reporting is difficult to access. The Turkish government must heed the calls of activists and civil society organizations from around the world and respect free speech and press freedom.
Some members of the British Parliament (MPs) are fighting proposed cuts to foreign aid, some of which would directly impact Yemen, a nation of about 16 million people. Due to what Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other Labour leaders say must occur to recuperate revenue loss from Covid-19.
Others disagree, most notably Conservative MPs, but the issue against these cuts crosses party lines. Currently, the British government spends 0.7% of its national income on humanitarian aid, a law passed in 2015. It is also recognized as a key target among many international organizations and communities.
PM Johnson and other Labour party advocates seek to cut that down to 0.5%, which would equate to approximately £4 billion. The key to this is that the cuts will cease when the national debt begins to decline and the government is no longer borrowing for regular operational spending.
Conservative MPs are seeking enough support to force the government to live up to its obligations and the law stipulated in 2015.
The current cuts to international aid programs will extend indefinitely, unless counter support can be rallied, and this could lead to serious long-term and devastating consequences, according to numerous charitable organizations around the world.
One such organization stated that when cutting aid during one of the worst crises in modern time is akin to “cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain.” Former Prime Minister, Theresa May, was one of 24 Conservative MPs who stood against these aid cuts and said the government was essentially, “turning its back on some of the poorest people in the world.”
While some strong, determined MPs stood firm, when the resolution to force adherence to 2015’s law came up for a vote, a number of wavering proponents melted under the spotlight, and obtaining the fifty-needed supporters failed. Some of the supporters of the resolution to force the UK to live up to its obligations had been quite vocal leading up to the vote, but suddenly turned away at the last moment.
UK charitable organization Oxfam GB’s chief executive, Danny Sriskandarajah stated, “We are seeing a yawning gap between the rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’ and the reality of a government breaking its promised to the world’s poorest and further undermining the UK’s credibility on the international stage.”
While Great Britain’s foreign aid cuts will impact a number of nations, Yemen stands to suffer the most, as about two-thirds of its citizens require some level of humanitarian aid. Funding for aid is running out quickly, though, according to the United Nations.
The UN is reaching out to the global community to help shore up needed $3.85 billion (US) in aid. When one looks at the amount Great Britain cut from its foreign aid spending, which totaled about £4 billion, it becomes clear that Great Britain’s decision is set to have negative ramifications on Yemen.
2020 saw a significant drop in foreign aid to Yemen, largely blamed on the impact the coronavirus has had on many countries. For Yemen’s aid, the UN only received about half of what they received the year before, which totalled about $1.9 billion (US).
This year, 16 million people are expected to need direct assistance from these funds, and unfortunately, the funding continues to be slashed.
Currently, Yemen represents the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. Following years of conflict, famine, and a breakdown of the most basic infrastructure necessities, millions of Yemenis, especially children, stand to suffer in the wake of foreign aid cuts.
Currently, about two million school-aged children no longer have access to school. On top of that, aid supporters claim that if they don’t get the right level of care and support for schooling fast enough, they may never return to their education, even if it becomes available sometime in the future.
This current aid crisis isn’t merely about providing food and shelter, but also the future of Yemen. If Great Britain, which passed its own law in 2015 declaring 0.7% of GDP to be spent on foreign aid, can change its own laws on a whim, during the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, what other countries will follow their lead? It’s a dangerous precedent to set and one that will likely have far-reaching consequences.
Over the past several years, Russia has garnered an infamous reputation for its expansionist policies, which seek to promote and spread the Kremlin’s political, economic, and military ideologies worldwide. Recently, it has pivoted its focus on increasing its presence in the Aegean Sea. The deadlocked conflict between Turkey and Greece has created a vacuum that Russia has already exploit.
The Aegean Sea is part of the Mediterranean Sea, and it is connected to the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea. The water body is located between Europe and Asia, and, therefore, offers numerous strategic benefits. For centuries, Russia has demonstrated a keen interest in these four water bodies as they have played a critical role in historical conflicts between Russia, European powers, and Turkey.
Today, Russia seeks to establish a strong presence in the region for several reasons. First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) largely dominates the Mediterranean region, serving as a significant counterbalance to Russia. By expanding its influence in the area, Russia aims to protect itself from any NATO threats and undermine the bloc’s efforts to get Ukraine and Georgia to join the group. Second, the Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas regions are critical to Russia’s geoeconomic strategy. The water bodies enable Russia to protect and promote important trade routes with key European markets and expand southern Europe’s dependency on Russia’s oil and gas exports. Finally, Russia hopes to use the strategic aspects of this region to forge political, economic, and military relationships with regional players such as Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Libya, and Turkey, as it has successfully and controversially done in Syria.
Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus are particularly susceptible to Russian influence efforts. This is because they are geopolitically closer to Russia, share similar cultural and historical traits, have cooperated with Russia in the past, and their economies are dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. As Russia broadens its engagements with Middle Eastern nations, it can also use these water bodies to prevent Middle East turmoil from spreading to Russia.
Russia is especially interested in the Aegean Sea region to increase its military foothold in this sought-after part of the world. For more than a year, Greece and Turkey have been in a deadlocked dispute over which nation should control the Mediterranean Sea and the oil and gas reserves beneath them. NATO countries have refused to back down, creating fissures in the bloc’s consolidated power. These divisions have provided Russia with a ripe opportunity to intervene and expand its influence. This region is especially important for the country as Russia is Europe’s leading supplier of gas. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil and gas company, the largest publicly-listed natural gas company, supplies Europe with 37% of its gas. This has fostered significant energy dependence that has enabled Russia to exert influence over Europe. By establishing its presence in the Aegean Sea, Russia can undermine any efforts to weaken its hold over Europe and its gas supplies.
However, expanding Russian influence in the region could result in numerous consequences. Suppose Russia were to successfully forge relations with smaller nations in the region, including some NATO powers. In that case, it could create further fissures in the bloc’s power structure, allowing Russia to deepen its influence in the region, undermining the influence of Western democratic countries. This is especially a concern if Russia can foster greater dependency on its exports of oil and gas. As Russia has demonstrated in Syria and Ukraine, it is willing to forego norms and rules around international human rights and sovereignty to further its own aims. This raises concerns that the country could operate similarly in the Mediterranean, which would result in destabilization and numerous social, political, and economic consequences.
Russia is implementing its policy of expansionism around the world, and its latest area of focus is the Aegean Sea region. The area holds numerous political, social, economic, and military advantages, which will help the country grow its economy and broaden its influence. Ongoing disputes between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean region have created a power vacuum, making the area ripe for Russian intervention and expansion.
Russia’s growing presence in the Agean Sea presents a threat to both Europe and the broader region, as the Kremlin often plays a destabilizing role in similar situations. NATO allies must solidify their efforts and undermine Russia’s expansionist ideology if it wants to maintain power over the Sea.
On June 27, leaders from Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan met in Baghdad to discuss opportunities for strategic political, economic, security, and cultural partnerships between the three nations. The trilateral summit came as the three Middle Eastern nations are reconsidering their geopolitical roles in the region. The three countries are also strategizing around boosting economic growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This new alliance is particularly significant for Egypt and Iraq, as the two countries have shared a rocky history. Experts predict that both nations will reap substantial economic rewards from the newly established partnership.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi attended the recent summit. The summit marks the fourth time the three leaders have convened since March 2019 and the first visit by an Egyptian president to Iraq since Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The countries are especially interested in fostering cooperation around economic, political, security, cultural, and educational issues through a partnership al-Kadhimi has dubbed the “New Levant” alliance. Additionally, Egypt and Iraq are both hoping to broaden their regional relationships.
The latest summit primarily focused on cooperation around economic, investment, energy, and security issues. In particular, Egypt and Iraq’s leaders discussed opportunities for boosting bilateral economic cooperation. Currently, Iraq is Egypt’s 25th largest investor, with 3,329 Iraqi companies working on investments valued at approximately $490 million. 25% of the investments made by Iraqi companies are in the industrial sector, 24% are in the agricultural sector, 20% in the service sector, and 20% in the tourism sector. Egypt hopes to expand the amount of Iraqi investment in the country. Iraq is also a lucrative export destination for Egypt. Currently, Egypt’s largest exports to the country include furniture, cotton, medicines, oils, tiles, crops, petroleum, and iron. Its largest imports from Iraq are chocolate and cocoa products.
In addition, the three countries discussed advancing projects in the energy and electrical interconnection sectors. For example, Iraq and Egypt have discussed connecting their electricity grids to decrease the nations’ dependence on electricity exports from Iran. Further, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan are currently working on a project that would link an oil pipeline at Basra port in southern Iraq with the port of Aqaba in Jordan and with Egypt. This project will allow Jordan to purchase Iraqi oil for a lower price than the global average. It will also enable Egypt to reap the benefits of refining some Iraqi oil within its borders. This project is particularly significant for Egypt, as it aims to become a regional hub for energy in the Middle East. Additionally, the investments and projects discussed will confer critical benefits to all three nations as they struggle to promote economic growth in their countries following COVID-19 induced downturns.
This new era of Egypt-Iraq cooperation will also allow Iraqi leaders to rebuild their country and economy in the wake of almost four decades of sectarian and extremist violence. Iraq is especially hoping to lean on Egyptian and Jordanian companies to fuel reconstruction projects. Given that all three countries are currently cash-strapped, Egypt and Iraq have agreed to exchange Iraqi oil for Egypt’s assistance with reconstruction efforts.
The newly-established Levant Alliance is already opening up new economic and political cooperation opportunities for Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. The new partnership is slated to produce numerous economic benefits for the three countries, which is especially important as the Middle Eastern nations seek to boost economic growth after the COVID-19 pandemic and years of regional conflict.