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Vol 64 No 21

Published 19th October 2023

Edging towards the abyss

The fallout from Hamas's attack on Israel raises the spectre of a regional war and further undermines western influence

When Jordan's King Abdullah II judged the Middle East was on 'the brink of falling into the abyss' in the days after Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiya's (Hamas) unprecedented attacks on Israel on 7 October and the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) bombardment of Gaza, few in the region were ready to contradict him.

Now it looks prophetic. Iran and its proxy army in Lebanon, the 135,000-strong Hezbollah, are ratcheting up the rhetoric and the rocket fire across Israel's northern border. This follows the explosion at Al Ahli Arab Hospital on 17 October in Gaza killing hundreds of patients and workers and blamed by Hamas on an air strike by the IDF. Israel and the United States say the devastation was caused by a misfired rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Gaza.

As the news flashed around the region, mass protests broke out in several capitals in North Africa. Protestors tried to storm the Israeli Embassy in Amman. That prompted King Abdullah to cancel a planned summit in the city with US President Joe Biden, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi.

The Israeli siege of Gaza and its relentless airstrikes are causing a humanitarian catastrophe in the coastal enclave and the aftershocks will shake several regional governments. International empathy with Israel in the wake of the Hamas attacks killing 1,400 people looks set to fade as the Palestinian death toll mounts.

To many African, Asian and Latin American governments, the west's support for Israel as it bombards one of the world's most densely populated urban areas sounds a note of double standards. That scepticism towards western policy has gained ground since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent diversion of tens of billions of military aid to Kyiv.

It contrasts with the lack of interest and effort in helping to resolve Africa's security problems, some of which are tracked back to the west's role in the overthrow of Libyan leader Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi. This partly explains popular support for military coups in the Sahel which removed pro-western rulers such as Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum.

Empty offer
Accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy in the Gaza crisis are equally levelled against African and Middle East leaders. Many oscillate between advocating peace – reflected in South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's offer of mediation on 12 October – and strongly supporting one side. Two days later Ramaphosa appeared draped in a keffiyeh (traditional Palestinian scarf) with his African National Congress (ANC) colleagues and 'pledged our solidarity with the people of Palestine… because they are people…that have been under occupation for almost 75 years.'

South Africa remains Israel's biggest trading partner in Africa; bilateral trade is worth more than US$400 million a year but has fallen by more than a third over the past decade. ANC leaders, including its current chairman and Mines and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, have hosted Hamas leaders for years. At least two South Africans were killed in the Hamas attacks in Israel, whose horror many in the ANC have quickly left behind. The embattled ruling party is focused more on outbidding its rivals as it prepares for elections in 2024.

Julius Malema, who has led the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) since he was expelled from the ANC, called for ties with Israel to be severed due to its 'relentless oppression of the Palestinian people'. ANC and EFF activists are due to converge on the Israeli embassy in Pretoria on 20 October for a pro-Palestinian demonstration.

Hamas is proscribed by several western governments as a terrorist organisation, but it has built a network of allies from Qatar (where its external leadership is based under political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh) to South Africa. Hamas's rising profile may boost its allies in other Islamist groupings. It has been closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is proscribed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Its strong Islamist affiliations, and increasingly close ties to Iran, have made some African governments wary of Hamas. Most have favoured the secular Fatah (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) whose leader Mahmoud Abbas presides over the fractured Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Israel is recognised by 44 African states and about two-thirds have embassies in Tel Aviv (AC Vol 58 No 24, Bibi goes vote shopping). But only a minority of those countries – Congo-Kinshasa, Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia – have openly expressed solidarity with Israel and condemned the Hamas attacks.

Kenya's President William Ruto has moved his country closer to the west but keeps close economic ties with Beijing, underlined by his trip to China on 15-17 October (AC Vol 64 No 14, A man for all summits). Prior to Britain's King Charles III arriving in Nairobi, Ruto condemned Hamas on X (formerly Twitter): 'The international community must mobilise to bring the perpetrators, organisers, financiers, sponsors, supporters and enablers of these reprehensible criminal acts of terrorism to account and speedily bring them to justice.'

Egypt under pressure
Most directly affected is Egypt, aware that pressures to open its tightly controlled Rafah crossing into Gaza could leave it hosting tens of thousands of refugees in the northern Sinai Peninsula, whose own uprising, involving Islamist groups and local Bedouins, has taken years to quell after the Arab Spring in 2011.

International attention has focused on the Rafah gate built into the 11km wall that separates southern Gaza from Egypt which is the only non-Israeli route out of Gaza. Cairo doesn't want to open the crossing, even to let third country passport holders through – until it can get security guarantees and some material advantage.

Facing a chronic financial crisis, Sisi's government can ill afford to host a sprawling refugee population that might stay indefinitely – like the Palestinians who fled to Jordan (where they are now a majority) and Lebanon.

Cairo brought forward its presidential elections to 10-12 December partly because Sisi's team wants to announce bad economic news in the new year, after an orchestrated victory over a tiny legal opposition (AC Vol 64 No 7, El Sisi's grip weakens as economic pressures mount).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Cairo on 15 October talking up its role in the Gaza conflict. The US will try to leverage some financial support for Egypt as a quid pro quo, trying to get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to soften its lending terms for Cairo. Washington's military aid for Egypt is useful but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become bigger creditors. All of them may have been asked by Blinken to do more for Cairo as economic pressures ratchet up in tandem with security ones.

In comments contested by his Israeli counterparts, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (EGID) director Major General Abbas Kamel said that 10 days before the Hamas attack, he had told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prepare for 'something unusual, a terrible operation'. The EGID is reckoned to have better human intelligence on Hamas than its Israeli counterparts who relied more on electronic surveillance.

The Gaza conflict is set to cause ructions across North Africa. On Algeria's annual Journée de la Diplomatie Algérienne on 8 October, Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Attaf told diplomats that Algeria would 'never give up its support for just causes' and – without mentioning the Hamas attack the previous day – attacked the 'recent Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip'.

Algeria has elevated Palestine to a national cause alongside independence in the disputed Western Sahara for the Polisario Front movement. It is key to the regional policy of President Abdelmajid Tebboune and military Chief of Staff Major General Saïd Chengriha as a stick with which to beat regional rival Morocco (AC Vol 63 No 9, Navigating through the fog of cold war).

President Tebboune may be looking for a foreign policy win after Algeria's failed bid to become a member of the BRICS at the summit in South Africa on 22-24 August when other 'middle powers' including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, Egypt and Ethiopia joined (AC 64 Vol No 18, Beijing asserts global south leadership role).


Algeria emphasising its traditional pro-Palestine and pro-Polisario Front support will add to tensions with Morocco. And King Mohammed VI (M6) also faces local opposition having signed an Abraham Accord normalisation deal with Israel in December 2020.

Since then, Israeli tourism, investment and security cooperation have flourished, while initial efforts to organise pro-Palestinian protests were snuffed out by efficient security services and Moroccans' reluctance to take to the streets. That has changed over the past week.

The quid pro quo of the Israel deal came from ex-United States president Donald Trump's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara – which Rabat calls its 'Saharan provinces' – in a victory for the national cause which significantly dampened any opposition to the Israel deal. The Biden administration has stuck with that recognition, which has helped M6. But war in Gaza upsets these calculations. That adds to concerns about raising finance for rebuilding work after the earthquake in Marrakech (AC Vol 64 No 19, Worst earthquake for 120 years could unleash economic and political tremors).

Assuming a traditional role for Morocco at the centre of League of Arab States/Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, M6 summoned an emergency meeting of the Arab League Council.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita has emphasised Morocco's 'full and unwavering support' for Palestine, pointing to a 'persistence of systematic violations and oppressive unilateral measures in Al Quds and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.'

Street protests on 15 October attracted the largest crowd in decades marching through Rabat chanting 'the people want the criminalisation of normalisation'. It attracted 'several hundred thousand people' according to the organisers, Le Front marocain de soutien à la Palestine et contre la normalisation (FMSPCN), which represents some 20 parties, unions and associations, and the National Action Group for Palestine, which is close to the opposition Islamist Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD).

Algeria's objection to Rabat's normalisation with Israel is political and strategic. Its military/security establishment worries that a transfer of drones, intelligence and other military/security materiel to Rabat from what Algeria tends to call 'the Zionist entity' is shifting the regional balance of power. Algeria's military exercises near the Moroccan border, with Russian forces, make a point of shooting down mock drones, much to Chief of Staff Major General Saïd Chengriha's publicly expressed pleasure (AC Vol 63 No 17, Rabat and Algiers cross swords over UN role).

Algérie Patriotique, a nationalist web platform founded by the family of former defence minister Khaled Nezzar, was among the many to conclude that the 7 October attack showed that the IDF and its 'iron dome' were over-rated. 'Those images take us to our own western frontier, which the Moroccan regime believes it has "shielded" ('blindées') thanks to its new ally's "sophisticated" equipment and means of spying,' it added. 

It concluded that just as Morocco and western states were wrong in arguing that Russian arms were obsolete and had failed in Ukraine, the 'nascent Palestinian forces' had shown who really was effective (AC Vol 63 No 9, Navigating through the fog of cold war). The Gulf states should take note.

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