Egypt prepares to crack down on human rights groups

On Aug. 12, a special delegation from Human Rights Watch was to visit Cairo. However, Egypt’s government had other plans.

The organization was to deliver a briefing alongside the release of its comprehensive report on the Egyptian security forces’ “clearance” of Rabia al-Adawiya and other Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins last year that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,150 people.

On Aug. 10, when Human Rights Watch attempted to enter the country, the Egyptian authorities held director Ken Roth, head of Middle East and North Africa division Sarah Leah Whitson and fellow Omar Shakir up at the Cairo airport and refused them access to the country. The Interior Ministry claimed that the holdup was due to nothing more than a failure on the organization’s part to attain proper visas before travelling, and that it had informed Human Rights Watch that its delegation must get travel papers in advance.

However, Whitson confirmed to Al-Monitor that the organization followed the same procedure that it has “for decades” in Egypt, and had received no contact from the Interior Ministry prior to the trip.

The report has been released regardless and its indictments of the highest level Egyptian officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for authorizing pre-planned mass killings that rivalled that of China in Tiananmen Square have if anything been magnified by the authorities’ actions.

The barring of Human Rights Watch was no aberration. According to senior representatives of Egyptian human rights groups, the authorities are now following a new policy toward them that could end their activities.

“What we’re currently facing is the police storming our offices and arresting us at any moment,” said Mohamed Zaree, head the Egypt program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and a leading human rights worker.

Egypt is home to a range of Egyptian civil society organizations like CIHRS that have incurred the government’s ire because of their criticism of state policy, especially toward dissent, but their legal position has always been uncertain. Now a new “draft law on associations” being weighed by the government is poised to fully criminalize their operations.

“This law criminalizes groups and associations that haven’t been approved by the government,” Zaree explained, “and we can’t be officially registered because the government-approved groups are controlled — they can’t work properly.”

He explained that there are a strict set of state-defined rules that government-approved groups have to adhere to, which include a ban on any activity that could “harm public unity” and that make effective human rights monitoring all but impossible.

To make matters worse, on July 18, Egypt’s Minister for Social Solidarity Ghada Waly posted a notice in Egypt’s state-owned al-Ahram newspaper warning “entities carrying out civil society work” that they will be dissolved within the next 45 days.

“The government sees this as a great opportunity to silence any critical voices, which it portrays as against the interests of Egypt,” said Gasser Abdel Rizak, the head of the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights.

“We are seeing horrendous rights violations of a magnitude probably not seen in Egypt before, and it isn’t sustainable. By documenting these abuses we’re trying to help those in power to make the right decisions and not shut down completely all dissent — that is in Egypt’s interests,” Abdel Rizak told Al-Monitor.

On Aug. 14, Egypt’s Ministry for Social Solidarity issued a statement emphasizing its “commitment to come up with a final draft that is in line with the 2014 Constitution” and claiming the final form of the law on nongovernmental organizations “would respond to the needs of the Egyptian people and fulfill their aspirations as well as ensure their cohesion.”

Human rights campaigners in Egypt have long faced allegations from conservative forces that their work is little more than defamation of the country and its interests.

“The conditions for carrying out human rights work are already not good at all,” said Ahmed Kheir, executive director of Egypt’s Support for Information Technology Center, an organization that monitors the media and campaigns for freedom of information.

“People working on highlighting human and civil rights issues are shunned by the media and the government and labeled as Muslim Brotherhood fronts or supporters of terrorism, even though they said the same things when [Mohammed] Morsi was president,” he told Al-Monitor.

Egypt’s rights groups regularly meet with diplomats from international embassies in Cairo, including the United States and European missions, during which they have expressed their fears about the near future.

However, little help has been forthcoming. Rights groups say while Western diplomats claim they are sympathetic to the causes of the rights groups, they are more concerned with maintaining strategic relationships with Egypt’s ruling regime, and these are based on security, stability and energy interests.

The British Embassy in Cairo told Al-Monitor that the British government supports the role of civil society organizations as part of a secure, prosperous and democratic Egypt and that it has made clear the importance of upholding human rights written into Egypt’s constitution.

However, the rights groups do not feel they are sufficiently supported, and say human rights abuses are not high on the agendas of Western governments.

“We think there has been a shameful response from the the Western governments and we’re afraid that the security forces will see their silence as a green light,” said Zaree.

CIHRS is coordinating the groups to try to fight the government’s plans, and it has formally submitted a letter signed by 23 Egyptian human rights organizations to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahleb in an attempt to elicit a change in policy. But when asked what the group thinks its chances are, the reply is “not good.”

“We know the old [Hosni] Mubarak regime officials were very scared by what happened in 2011 … and under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, there were similar attempts to get rid of us right after the uprising,” said Zaree.

“It’s like the state now is trying to shut down the avenues of expression that Egyptians created and that led to the January 25 revolution.”

 

This article was originally published with Al-Monitor on August 15 2014.

Algeria to capitalise on EU-Russia rift

On July 19, Algeria’s state energy company Sonatrach finalized a $100bn five year investment plan designed to considerably increase the country’s capacity to produce and export energy.

The plans feature more than $22bn of investment in the country’s natural gas industry, which will include the development of six new gas fields, along with another $20bn for the production of oil. The distribution of the rest of the total has yet to be decided.

The expansion plans comes as Sonatrach – the largest energy company in Africa – announces it has reshuffled its C-suite management. Previous CEO Abdelhamid Zerguine has been replaced by the company’s former vice president for production Said Sahnoun. The change is believed to have come at the behest of energy minister Youcef Yousfi himself, according to This is Africa sources within international energy companies operating in Algeria.

Algeria has the fourth largest oil reserves in Africa, and the second-largest gas reserves. Hydrocarbons constitute about 60 percent of the country’s budget revenues, and more than 95 percent of exports.

However, the sector has been struggling. Declining production has combined with rising domestic demand for energy to seriously hit the state’s key source of revenue. Oil and gas output dropped by 7.5 percent in 2013, wiping out $5bn in value. Export revenues have also shrunk. Algeria earned just $63.8bn in hydrocarbon exports in 2013, down from $69.8bn in the previous year.

The government is now preparing to take bids next month from foreign companies for 31 new oil and gas fields in order to counter the decline. Some hydrocarbon industry deals are beginning to come to light.

At the US-Africa Summit on August 5, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt met with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to discuss the country’s operations in Algeria. The pair also announced orders for eight gas generators, and a gas engine project.

GE has a well established presence in Algeria. Its technologies generate almost 70 percent of the country’s electricity, according to Rania Rostom, the company’s chief communications officer for the Middle East and North Africa.

“We are committed to being Algeria’s growth partner by supporting the development of the country’s energy infrastructure,” said Lorraine Bolsinger, CEO of GE’s distributed power division.

In March, GE signed a $400m deal with Sonelgaz, Algeria’s state-owned electricity and natural gas distributor, to build a new gas complex in the eastern province of Batna. On June 25 Sonatrach also signed a major deal worth more than $600m with India’s Dodsal for a gas facility near the eastern town of Hassi Messaoud.

The government also plans to start developing the country’s less conventional energy sources, namely the country’s vast untapped shale reserves. Algeria is believed to be home to the third largest shale gas reserves in the world, and Sonatrach will begin drilling at four shale gas wells this year.

The British company Clarke Energy, which operates in Algeria, told This is Africa that it signed two deals for efficient power plants in Algeria earlier this month – and that it was looking to do more.

“There is massive potential in the country for the use of flare gas for power generation – that is, gases that are normally, flared as waste products when companies are extracting crude oil,” said Clarke’s marketing and compliance manager, Alex Marshall.

“We would like to build upon our other successful flare gas projects in Africa such as the Waha plant in Tunisia,” he said.

Renewing exports

With the retail price for natural gas fixed (now below cost price) since 2005, Algeria has the second cheapest domestic prices for natural gas in Africa, according to the IMF.

This means a large share of hydrocarbon production is satisfying Algerians’ demand for energy. The government’s plans to boost production and expand renewables is not targeting domestic markets, but geared towards attracting large export contracts.

“The programme aims to install a capacity of 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2030 with the installation of 20 new photovoltaic plants in Algeria by the end of 2014,” says Professor Noureddine Yassaa, director of Algeria’s state Renewable Energy Development Center (CDER).

“As the biggest country in Africa and in the Mediterranean basin, we have huge potential renewable energy resources, especially in solar energy, and all the conditions are met for Algeria to be leading on renewable energy in the region,” Professor Yassaa says.

The government has also introduced a feed-in tariff scheme for photovoltaic solar power, which will last for the next 20 years. The tariff offers compensation to renewable energy producers – effectively subsidising renewable energy production.

Foreign investors have begun to take interest. On June 12, the German company Group Eurosol signed a preliminary agreement in Algiers with Algeria’s Aurès Solaire for a stake in developing new photovoltaic plants.

Supplying Europe

In light of the current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine, European Commission planners are considering alternative forms of supply to substitute for Russian imports. This is a window of opportunity for Algeria, which already supplies around 70 percent of its crude oil exports and 80 percent of its gas exports to Europe.

Algerian officials have met frequently with European representatives to discuss its energy supplies to Europe. On June 5, negotiations were held with Greece on importing Algerian gas to market in Romania and Bulgaria. On June 16, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, visited Algiers to promote British business interests in Algeria’s energy industry.

And on June 25, the Italian industry minister Federica Guidi met with Prime Minister Sellal to discuss expanding Italy’s energy relationship with Algeria. Italy derives around 40 percent of its energy from natural gas, and is increasingly concerned about the security of its Russian supply.

In Algiers, Ms Guidi said her visit – the first by an Italian minister since 2012  – was a chance “to confirm the strategic importance Italy attaches to Algeria, especially as regards oil and gas supplies”.

According to CDER’s Professor Yassaa,  Europe’s desire to diversify away from Russia “is extremely important given the proximity of Algeria to Europe,and the huge Algerian potential for a partnership which is sustainable and long lasting”.

“The current crisis in Ukraine has propelled questions of Algerian supplies to the centre of  EU–Russian tensions. With Russian supplies in question, EU member states are looking to Algeria as a possible substitute,” writes Mansouria Mokhefi, special advisor for the Middle East and North Africa to the French Institute of International Relations.

Ms Mokhefi argues that though the ossification at the heart of Algeria’s political system is problematic, there are prospects for a closer energy relationship between the EU and Algeria

“European leaders are looking to Algeria as the most reliable alternative source of energy for the EU, and have engaged in conversations with the Algerian leadership to increase their energy co-operation.”

 

This article was originally published with Financial Times: This is Africa on August 12 2014.

Analysis: Morocco is no regional beacon

With the US-Africa Leaders Summit in full swing, much of the analysis on Morocco holds up the kingdom as a model for cautious, but essentially successful reform in the Middle East. Such analysis serves to underpin both United States and European policy, which is currently designed to support and maintain, rather than challenge, the kingdom’s political order. Critically examining Morocco’s record, however, shows that its reformist image is mostly undeserved, and its position as a potential regional model unearned.

The Moroccan monarchy’s response to popular demonstrations in late 2010 and early 2011 was essentially two-pronged. First, it violently dismantled protest camps in the Western Sahara and used extensive force against the activist February 20 movement. Second, it organized a referendum (under conditions that, having witnessed the voting process, I believe were questionable) on a new national constitution.

The palace has successfully presented the adoption of the new constitution in July 2011 as a sign of its commitment to reform and even partial democratizing of the country. In reality, the reforms were limited in letter and even more so in practice. In fact, the regime remains a repressive authoritarian monarchy—facing serious allegations of human rights violations—and presides over an unequal social and economic order.

Even by regional standards, political power in Morocco is unusually highly concentrated. While the constitution did devolve some modest legislative power, the intelligence services and military are still closely controlled by King Mohammed VI who also chairs a council of state that must endorse all legislation even before it goes to parliament and furthermore may dissolve parliament, call elections, and dismiss government ministers.

The king also operates a secretive royal council comprised of his closest advisers, which appears to function as the country’s real policy and decision-making body. Prominent among its members are royal adviser Fadel Benyaich, adviser Fouad Ali El Himma, and the head of the external intelligence service (DGED) Yassine Mansouri. All three are former classmates of the king.

Meanwhile economic policy has been mainly designed by, and in the interests of, a narrow ruling class often referred to as the Makhzen. Recent economic reforms to cut public subsidies may have been supported by the rating agencies (and the IMF which just announced another $5 billion precautionary credit line) but will do little to alleviate poverty, which despite some improvements in the cities is stillwidespread in rural areas.

Details of the monarchy’s business interests are closely guarded but they arecertainly extensive. The king’s wealth is substantial and the royal family holds the majority stake in the National Investment Company (SNI), which has been repeatedly accused of corruption.

King Mohammed VI’s father, Hassan II, ran a security regime that openly engaged in arbitrary detentions, the repression of dissents, and assassinations of its own citizens. Despite differences in style, at its core the regime today operates in much the same way.

The state now uses anti-terrorism discourse and laws as a cover, but international human rights organizations have documented that it still imprisons and prosecutes journalists, disappears political opponents, and crushes peaceful protests. Criticism of the king is illegal.

The regime also operates secret prisons and engages in the systematic torture of political dissidents, especially from its Sahrawi population. Human Rights Watch,Amnesty International, and the US State Department have detailed the extraction and use of torture-tainted confessions.

Most significant of all Morocco is still maintaining a military occupation of Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. The regime invaded and annexed Western Sahara in 1975, drove tens of thousands of its inhabitants into refugee camps in Algeria, and holds the land in violation of international law. Within Western Sahara, a harsh security order is maintained to suppress the Sahrawi population while Moroccan settlement is promoted by subsidy.

In this context one might ask why Morocco enjoys the reputation it does. The answer, in part, lies in its operation of a sophisticated public relations machine, including a multi-million dollar lobbying mission in Washington.

For the United States, Morocco is seen as a valued strategic ally in a “historic and proud partnership,” in the words of Senator John Kerry on July 29. The kingdom is willing to accommodate almost any counter-terrorism demands that are made of it and regularly purchases US arms, with recent transactions including twenty-four F-16s, $1 billion of refurbishment for its 200 Abrams M1A1 tanks, military radar systems, and Sidewinder missiles. For Western Europe, it is a key trading partner.

Those relationships are underwritten and partly justified by the view of Morocco as a haven of regime stability, moderation, regional reform. The West should thoroughly reassess these underlying assumptions about Morocco’s ruling regime—and subsequently the strategic and diplomatic relationships with the kingdom. This is particularly important for the United States and France, where relations with the kingdom are strongest and influence highest.

Morocco is no regional beacon. Its Human Development Index ranking remains the worst in North Africa, and it leads the way on both income inequality and illiteracy. Its record on political reform, democratization, and human rights is not impressive and certainly not comparable with Tunisia’s. A more suitable comparison for its record could be found in the GCC monarchies that are rarely presented in the same positive light.

Holding the kingdom up as an example for the region is misguided and could be damaging to popular democratic forces within North African societies, which are already benighted. Such movements could be discouraged by international acceptance of authoritarian behavior, and the potential remains for long-term popular resentment of US policy that is seen as implicitly encouraging a violation of principles surrounding human rights and good governance.

Instead, the United States should use the opportunity created by the US-Africa Leaders Summit to critically assess Morocco’s ruling regime and pressure it to begin real reforms, especially on human rights and its conduct in Western Sahara. The consequences of ignoring this imperative could result in increased public resentment towards the United States (at best) and increased extremism (at worst) as avenues for civil discourse and political engagement remain impeded.

 

This article was originally published with The Atlantic Council on August 5.

Libya burns, world ignores it

Tripoli is in flames. A large fire that started July 27 during fighting between rival militias on the city’s central airport road now engulfs two major fuel tanks and has continued to spread while the body count ticks upward.

Not only are Tripoli’s few firefighters, who must brave what is effectively a war zone to do their job, making little progress, but bullets continue to hit the huge storage facility of the Brega Oil and Gas Co. The fires were so large that at their peak they were visible on satellite images.

Aside from the physical danger posed by the fires, the sight of what is Libya’s overwhelmingly most important resource billowing into the sky adds to the sting of gasoline prices in the capital, now more than 30 times the standard rate.

The Brega depot is under the control of the most prominent militias from the western city of Zintan. These militias, principally Uthman Mulayqithah’s al-Qaqaa and Isam al-Trabulsi’s al-Sawaiq, have been fighting Islamist militias from Misrata that first attacked their position at Tripoli airport on July 13. While former Defence Minister Osama al-Juwali is believed to be helping coordinate the Zintani forces, the former parliamentarian Salah Badi is leading the Misratans.

Badi had originally been appointed head of military intelligence by Nuri Abu Sahmain, the Islamist head of the General National Congress, but was rejected by senior military figures. He is now coordinating Libya Shield Forces — a paramilitary group nominally under the control of armed forces Chief of Staff Abdel-Salam al-Obeidi — along with forces from the Interior Ministry-aligned Supreme Security Committee militia.

As Badi and his forces fight through the streets of Tripoli, assassinations in the rest of the country continue unabated. Hasan Kamouka, police chief of the western city of Sabratha, was found assassinated on July 27.

Overall violence in Libya has been high this year, with July by far the worst month for killings. According to Libya Body Count, to date in 2014 at least 650 people have suffered violent deaths, and among those, 348 were killed this month. Dozens were killed this past weekend alone.

In Benghazi, the fighting between Islamists and forces led by Khalifa Hifter, a retired general and former chief of staff for Moammar Gadhafi, is becoming bloodier. Hifter began his campaign in May in response to violence by Islamist militant groups and their open discussions of a purge of senior military officers. He counts multiple influential militia leaders among his allies.

Hifter’s forces have also been bolstered by the defections of former air force chief Saqr al-Jaroushi, head of the navy Hassan Abu-Shannaq, and the air defense forces chief Jomaa al-Abani. Hifter has publicly stated that he intends to establish what he calls the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces in Libya.

The fighting on July 27 left dozens of fighters dead, including Ahmed al-Zahawi, the brother of Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. Posts on the group’s social media accounts indicate that over the weekend Ansar al-Sharia obtained armor and artillery and has begun to use it. As fighting peaked, Zahawi was spotted on the front lines.

Lining up with Hifter’s forces in Benghazi are the Saiqa Brigade, under Col. Wanis Bukhamada, and the influential tribal leader Ezzedin Wakwak, who granted Hifter use of the Benina airbase. Against them are three Islamist militias — Ismail al-Sallabi’s Februrary 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, led by Mohamad al-Gharabi, and most important, Zahawi’s Ansar al-Sharia.

Benghazi has become so dangerous that members of the newly elected House of Representatives, who decided to move the legislature from Tripoli to Benghazi, are planning to relocate the body even farther east, to Tobruk, according to Libya analyst Mohamed Eljarh, who attended meetings of the body.

The international community‘s response to the Libyan crisis has been limited. Special envoys from the Arab League, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States have called for an immediate cease-fire, and on July 23 British Ambassador Michael Aron met with Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani to discuss the importance of getting the militias to put down their arms.

On July 28, the prime minister’s office officially requested international assistance to put out the fires. Officials were hoping for planes to extinguish the flames. This request, like similar requests by the government for help enforcing a cease-fire, will not be granted. No country appears to see itself as having sufficient interest in assisting the government, which has little real authority. In any case, militia forces are equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry and would be none too pleased with foreign intervention of any kind.

Not only is there no appetite for genuine assistance, but the Austrian, Dutch, German, Japanese, Turkish, and US embassies have all closed and evacuated diplomatic staff within the last few days. One European ambassador told Al-Monitor, “We’re staying, but we’re just trying to find a way out of this mess.”

The Libyan government has formed a team led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, former head of the National Transitional Council, to negotiate a cease-fire with the militias, but little has been heard from the effort thus far. Meanwhile, the influential embassies are mostly empty, with the notable exceptions of the United Kingdom and France, and the United Nations has withdrawn its mission.

 

This article was originally published with Al-Monitor on July 29.