Timely questions on Libya attacks, Middle East at Strategic Survey 2012 launch

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

The recent attacks on US consulates in Libya and Egypt may shift the western perspective of what’s happening in the Arab world, but how things will play out within Libya and Egypt is a far more pressing question, argues Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Regional Security-Middle East.

On 11 September, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – possibly part of a pre-planned strike by a militant group – amid protests over a film about the prophet Mohammed. Protesters also stormed the US consulates in Cairo and in Yemen, and unrest continues to spread.

Hokayem, speaking at the press conference for the Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs launch in London, noted that while the details of the attack are still unclear,  it was worth considering what Stevens himself would have said about the situation:‘[He] would not want revenge or disengagement; he would have argued for renewed investment and attention in these critical periods.’ But what matters most in a strategic sense, Hokayem argues, is the reaction from the Libyan and Egyptian governments: ‘This will be the real test, especially for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their international credibility.’

Hokayem said the Libyan government was very clear in its condemnation, but Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi waited some time before making a statement. Whether the political elites in Libya and Egypt can effectively combat extremist sentiment is crucial for their international legitimacy. ‘This is the tragedy of mainstream Islamist movements,’ said Hokayem.  ‘They can easily be outflanked by more extremist factions that frame everything in terms of identity, and not in terms of public governance choices and not in terms of the need for international recognition.’

Hokayem responded to several questions on Libya and other regional security issues at the launch, where opening remarks by Dr John Chipman, touching on significant security themes in the volume, were followed by a Q & A session addressed to a panel of regional experts. Issues discussed included Middle East security – including Syria, Iran and Israel – terrorism in North Africa, China and Japan’s maritime tensions and the Eurozone crisis.

Another timely question dealt with the likelihood of a strike by Israel against Iran: ‘There is a possibility of an Israeli strike this autumn,’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, in response. ‘But it is a reduced possibility, given the divergence of views in Israel.’

Fitzpatrick explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be acknowledging Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still maintains that Obama’s commitment is not credible.

‘There’s not a consensus in the inner Israeli security cabinet for a strike, and so it’s unlikely,’ said Fitzpatrick.

Watch the full press conference here.


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