The Middle East Channel

Egyptians Vote in Key Constitution Referendum Amid Tensions

Egyptians have begun going to the polls in a two-day referendum on a new constitution backed by the military-led government. The draft is expected to pass easily, with no campaigning against the constitution. However, opposition activists say they have not been free to campaign against it, and the Muslim Brotherhood has planned to boycott the process. The new constitution would replace the charter drafted under Mohamed Morsi, but is not radically different. The new text removed disputed Islamist language and would strengthen state institutions including the military, police, and judiciary. It also includes some increased protections for women's rights and religious freedom. The military-backed government is pushing for a yes vote, as an endorsement of the July 3, 2013 ouster of Morsi that could pave the way for army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential bid and elections as early as April. The polling is taking place amid high security with about 160,000 soldiers and over 200,000 police officers deployed across the country. However, an explosion struck near a court building in Cairo's Imbaba district, causing no injuries. Additionally, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter was killed in clashes between the Brotherhood and security forces at a protest in Beni Suef, about 70 miles south of Cairo. Another pro-Morsi supporter reportedly died from wounds sustained in clashes in Giza.

Syria

NGOs have pledged $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria ahead of an international donor conference to begin Wednesday in Kuwait. The conference aims to help the United Nations raise $6.5 billion for assistance for Syria and neighboring countries hosting refugees from the conflict that is now approaching its third year. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) delivered rations to a record 3.8 billion people in December, however it remains concerned about people living in eastern provinces and besieged areas who remain out of reach. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria is prepared to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to some areas under siege, including East Ghouta, where residents have been cut off for nearly a year. Meanwhile, an official from the opposition Syrian National Coalition said the United States and Britain have warned they may reconsider support for the group if it fails to participate in a peace conference slated to begin on January 22 in Switzerland.

Headlines

  • Turkish police raided the offices of an Islamic charity, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), accused of trying to ship arms to Syria, in part of an operation in six cities against al Qaeda suspects.
  • A series of car bombings in Baghdad killed an estimated 26 people as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met in the capital with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging leaders to address the "root causes" of violence.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that a meeting with Iran on its nuclear program set for next week has been postponed to February 8.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts obsessive and "messianic."

Arguments and Analysis

'Hey General, It's Me, Chuck. Again.' (Shadi Hamid, Politico Magazine)

"Since the July 3 military coup in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi -- the country's charismatic strongman -- more than 25 times. The two men reportedly first bonded somewhat over a two-hour lunch in April. Apparently, Sissi liked Hagel's 'bluntness.' Their relationship, forged during one of the worst spells of violence in Egypt's modern history, provides an interesting, if unsettling, window into the strategic drift of U.S. policy in Egypt as well as the broader region.

Since that first lunch, Hagel and Sissi have spoken often. Out of the 30 or so total calls, the U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive. Egypt is the only country where Hagel has a regular, direct line of communication not just with the minister of defense but also the (effective) head of state, since Sissi happens to be both. With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region's more brutal, repressive regimes to be 'democratic.' Although there are certainly competitors -- Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind -- it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground."

'Egypt's Quest for Itself' (Peter Harling and Yasser El Shimy, Orient XXI)

"Egypt's fear of generalized conflict or collective collapse appears to prompt a collective purging instinct, in which society consolidates around the need to rid itself of one of its components, perceived as threatening to the whole. Typically, this category is first re-categorized as foreign. The Brotherhood set themselves up to being treated as such, not least by encouraging jihad in Syria -- a provocative break with a more cautious and mature foreign policy for the pure sake of rallying an Islamist base. But there is a pattern here that runs deeper, albeit on different scales.

Before protests gained decisive momentum in the early days of the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians saw demonstrators as paid agents provocateurs that deserved no better than to be crushed. This sentiment has returned at various stages of the transition. Coptic Christians suddenly faced frantic government and communal violence as they marched past the Maspero state television building in October 2011. Sudden spikes of xenophobia -- against Westerners, Palestinians or Syrian refugees accused of the most outrageous plots against the country's integrity -- fit into the same pattern. Egyptians compulsively seek a scapegoat to blame for the country's ill fortunes. Most media outlets, both state-controlled and privately owned, whip up campaigns of intolerance that the public largely buys into, finding comfort in groupthink."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Defending Israel’s Natural Gas

As offshore natural gas production snowballs in Israel and private companies begin to announce plans for exports, it has become all too clear that the country lacks the kind of comprehensive energy policy that a resource-rich state needs. Between the government's inability to allocate specific and sufficient funds for defending natural gas installations, minimal environmental regulation, lack of infrastructure, and new threats like cyber warfare and the accumulation of advanced weapons systems by non-state actors, Israel is unprepared to face the challenges associated with protecting its gas reserves. Some steps have been taken recently toward crafting a plan, but the technological, financial, and strategic aspects of what should be a national energy security policy still have a long way to go.

While rig owners have private armed security forces on each platform, the ultimate responsibility to protect these installations lies with the Israeli navy, since the country's coastline is not long enough to merit a separate coast guard. Navy patrol boat vessels currently patrol in the vicinity of this infrastructure -- about 12 miles from Ashdod -- but the military only has 13 fast attack ships. The Super Dvora-class Mark III and Shaldag Mark III patrol craft designated for this purpose, in addition to recently acquired Dolphin submarines from Germany, cannot on their own protect Israel's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is almost twice the size of the country itself.

The typically underfunded navy recognizes this reality, but while Israel's defense budget is expected to increase in 2014 following a spat with the parliamentary finance committee, no specific amount has been allocated for defending natural gas platforms. On one hand, the ministry of defense and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) contend that more than $860 million is needed in the form of a one-time budget allocation plus annual operations costs for large patrol vessels, extended surveillance and intelligence capabilities, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The ministry of finance, on the other hand, claims that threats are overestimated and defending installations would only cost about $200 million. Meanwhile, the state's national security council, which has conducted its own preliminary report, recommends spending about $775 million. There is certainly a government-wide understanding that protecting offshore gas fields and installations is a national security issue that requires funding, but it seems there is little impetus for expediting an actual decision.

Such a large sum of money is needed in part because the Israeli navy's equipment is in dire need of upgrades to counteract new types of threats such as cyber attacks, guided missiles, and UAVs. The navy worked with Israeli defense companies on a new long-range air defense system to be installed on missile ships, and improved coastal electronic sensors as well in 2013. In December, Israel signed a deal to buy two German-built MEKO class F221 frigates to patrol offshore gas fields for $1.37 billion. Still, IDF officials admit that they cannot adequately secure the infrastructure at sea with their current resources. They worry that the installations are still a "sitting duck" for terrorists, and a recent report that Hezbollah is smuggling advanced guided-missile systems into Lebanon from Syria indicates that the potential for non-state actors to acquire the best non-conventional technology is a reality.

Israel's lack of domestic natural gas infrastructure is a third impediment to energy security. Until the Leviathan field comes online, Israel's gas market will be based solely on the Tamar field, which began production in March, 2013. There is only one production treatment platform, located about 12 miles from Ashkelon and 12 miles from Gaza, which has only one terminal, in Ashdod, and there is only one pipeline to deliver the gas to the Mediterranean coast for local consumption. There is consensus among the Israeli policy community that it is only a matter of time until an attack of accident leaves Israel sitting in the dark or relying on alternative expensive sources of fuel. Given that natural gas is expected to account for the majority of Israel's energy supply, diversifying entry points to the shore and constructing additional refineries and treatment sites is essential to security.

Environmental protection and regulation is yet another missing component of a comprehensive energy security policy. Israel's supervisory laws, which provide for oversight on industrial activity, apply to the country's territorial waters but not to its EEZ, where most hydrocarbon drilling is done. This means that no one -- including exploration and production companies -- can "legally be accountable for damages that ensue there." Nor does the planning committee have jurisdiction over the EEZ, which gives gas companies free reign to operate without being required to perform due diligence, such as environmental-impact studies of drilling plans and safer alternatives. New guidelines have been proposed, but that legislation is not expected to pass in the immediate future, and it does not satisfy environmental groups, which lambaste loopholes in the text that could result in a disaster.

Even though a comprehensive energy security policy is nonexistent, Israel has made some progress in asserting and enunciating a strategy. Natural gas platform defense is now unified under the navy, which is considered to be the only entity capable of protecting the EEZ. Rigs will still have private security forces, but they will always have to coordinate with the IDF. The government also changed the law forbidding the protection of infrastructure outside Israeli territorial waters, enabling the navy to extend its jurisdiction to the EEZ.

Despite the success of these important initiatives, the bigger picture remains a cause for concern. Any energy security policy advanced by Israel must be a comprehensive, concerted, and cohesive effort that mitigates any and every possible threat. Until this strategic necessity becomes a top priority for Israel's policymakers, the country will be subject to enormous risk.

Allison Good is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @Allison_Good1.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images