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The Takeaway: Ethiopia's escalating crisis imperils other US objectives in region

Netanyahu’s last stand to bring down Israeli coalition?; China comes between US and Israel; Turkey readies for Syria battle; clerics question pig transplants; experts question second Sphinx; Egypt’s first female chanters … all in less than 1,400 words!
Sudan protest

Hot Take: Biden administration needs to act fast on Sudan


That was then: Ethiopia and Sudan, both of which had recently seemed economic and political success stories, are now candidates for state collapse. A military coup on Oct. 25 ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the other civilian members of Sudan’s transitional government, which came to power after popular demonstrations that overthrew dictator and war criminal Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Next door, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea, now faces sanctions, along with his erstwhile partners in Eritrea, for war crimes committed in the ongoing Tigray conflict.

For the rest of the world, the whiplash is creating a policy crisis. The Biden administration is reassessing its ties with both countries and trying to keep the crises in the Horn of Africa from spiraling out of control. They already implicate a number of other countries in the region.

US-Ethiopia ties starting to crack: US Horn of Africa Envoy Jeffrey Feltman said on Nov. 1 that warring parties in Ethiopia, including the military and government-backed forces, are committing “rampant atrocities” in Tigray. “Alarmed” by these developments, the United States has imposed a range of sanctions on Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government, in the meantime, has declared a state of emergency and advised citizens to arm themselves in case violence spreads. If Ethiopia does not address the current political unrest through dialogue and consensus, we could see the “deterioration of the integrity of the state,” according to Feltman.

US banks on pressure, partners in Sudan: In addition, the Biden administration suspended $700 million in economic assistance and the World Bank has paused all disbursements to Sudan in response to the takeover led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s armed forces. The United States is calling for the return of Hamdok and relying in particular on the UAE, which has good relations with all Horn of Africa countries, to help restore the civilian-led transitional government.

Our take: Sudan seems closer to resolution than Ethiopia, which is in a downward spiral. The Biden administration can’t afford for both to fester, so it should move fast on Sudan, where Washington’s leverage and partners are better positioned than in Ethiopia. Burhan says he is committed to a transitional government with civilian participation and will proceed with elections, as scheduled, in 2023. The UAE, Egypt and Israel all have good relations with Burhan and are in on the diplomatic action with the United States. And in the last 24 hours there appears to be progress, perhaps including a possible return for Hamdok, who appears to have a constituency in Sudan’s streets, which are filled with demonstrators protesting the coup. The guiding documents of the Sudanese transition, worth recalling, are the Sudan Constitutional Declaration (August 2019) and the Juba Peace Agreement (October 2020).

Read more: Ayah Aman has the take here from Cairo on the regional diplomacy, and our staff here has the view from Washington.


From our regional correspondents:


1 . Bibi tries to stave off ‘vote of confidence’

In a major test of Israel’s fragile coalition government, lawmakers will vote Thursday on a state budget that could cement the future of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government for at least two years.

Ben Caspit describes the upcoming vote as “a decisive battle of historic proportions waged by a fragile but determined multiparty coalition against the most powerful politician ever to operate in Israel.” 

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bent on depriving Bennett’s government of the majority it needs to pass the budget.

Netanyahu is telling associates that “it would just take one vote to bring the government down,” writes Mazal Mualem. “There is also talk of the Likud sending out feelers to Knesset members from the ruling Yamina [right-wing party led by Bennett] with all sorts of promises if anyone agrees to switch sides.”


2. China an irritant in US-Israel ties

Israel’s relations with China continue to cause friction with the United States. Washington is concerned about Beijing’s latest investments in security-sensitive Israeli technologies and infrastructure, including a new port in Haifa built and operated by a Chinese company.

The US opposition to investment from China (which makes up less than 10% of the foreign capital invested in Israel) was addressed during Bennett’s meeting with President Joe Biden in August, as well as during Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Washington last month. Danny Zaken writes that Israel’s new government is making certain changes to its China policy, “but perhaps not at the pace or the extent the Americans demand.” 


3. Turkey, Syrian proxies prep for possible battle

Turkey is deploying military reinforcements to northeast Syria in preparation for a possible attack on the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara considers to be terrorists. Following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warnings of a fresh offensive, the Turkish-backed coalition of rebel groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been meeting with Turkish military officials. 

Turkey and its Syrian proxies have carried out two prior military operations in Kurdish-held parts of northern Syria, most recently the October 2019 incursion that saw Turkey take control of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Khaled al-Khateb spoke with an FSA commander who described the towns of Tel Rifaat and Kobani as a “strategic target,” adding “it is likely that the battle will be directed toward them.”


4. Pig transplant provokes Egypt’s clerics 

Doctors at New York University have successfully transplanted a pig’s kidney into a human, in a first-of-its-kind procedure that drew criticism from some Egyptian clerics.

At issue is whether the transplant violates the prohibition on pig consumption as defined in Islam's holy book, the Quran. A professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s highest religious authority, told Baher al-Kady that because pigs are regarded as impure, it’s forbidden to consume them for any reason. But the jury is still out elsewhere in Egypt.

One prominent cleric said the pig prohibition applies only to the animal’s meat, not its organs. Dar al-Ifta, the Egyptian body that issues religious rulings, said such pig transplants are acceptable only when doctors have exhausted all other options. 


5. Experts doubt second Sphinx discovery

Experts are casting doubt on an Egyptian tourism official who claims to have discovered another giant Sphinx near Egypt’s famous pyramids.

Former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass told Baher al-Kady that talk of another Sphinx — a limestone monolith with the head of a man and the body of a lion — is “baseless and has only one purpose, which is creating media fanfare.” Mustafa al-Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said Reda Abdel Halim’s apparent discovery “is nothing but a normal statue.” Halim, however, has doubled down on his claims that Egypt is home to not one, but two giant Sphinxes. 


One Cool Thing: Egypt’s first female chanters


Check out the video below to hear from Egypt’s first all-women ensemble for religious chanting. Men have long dominated the art of Islamic chanting in the North African country, and since its founding in 2017, the Al-Hoor Al-Ain group has faced discriminatory attacks from some male scholars who say women are forbidden from singing. Other clerics say women are not barred from performing the religious songs “as long as they choose sober and purposeful words.” The group’s founder says she is undeterred and hopes to one day open a women’s school for religious chanting. You can read Maryam Raafat’s article here and check out the video below.


What We’re Reading: Martin Indyk’s “Master of the Game”


Former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk is out with a new book chronicling the Middle East peace process and the man who led those efforts in the 1970s, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Drawing on his own experience as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2013, Indyk’s “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy” takes readers inside Kissinger’s high-stakes shuttle diplomacy between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And don’t miss Indyk’s interview with Gilles Kepel on next week’s “Reading the Middle East'' podcast

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