In Other News: Egypt’s Diplomatic Role in the Middle East, Brazil’s Economy Improving & More – May 21, 2021

May 21, 2021

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi played a significant role in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, which have been engaged in renewed violence in the last 11 days. Egypt mediated the truce to pause the fighting between the two sides starting today, after diplomats from Egypt, Qatar, and the United Nations had engaged in diplomacy between Israel and Hamas. U.S. President Biden spoke at least six times with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the fighting began early last week and with Egyptian President al-Sisi yesterday before the deal was finalized. Egypt said it would monitor the truce between the parties and would be sending delegations to Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories. Whether or not the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas holds – and many are skeptical – the growing prominence of President al-Sisi in the region cannot be overlooked. Egypt borders Israel and the Gaza Strip and has a vested economic and security interest in seeing some resolution to the conflict, or at least a cessation of violence. But Al-Sisi also has a political interest in being at the center of negotiations in the Middle East. Egypt has played a role mediating between Israel and Hamas for many years now, having brokered a truce that ended the last Gaza war in 2014. This latest assertion of leadership is proof that President al-Sisi is positioning himself as a regional powerbroker. If the ceasefire holds, Egypt’s position of influence in the region will most certainly increase.

Brazil’s economic forecast looks to be improving, according to the Ministry of Economy, but the Covid-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat to the country and to the political fortunes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s GDP forecast for 2021 was raised to 3.5%, due to improvements seen in the first quarter of the year and government predictions for a return of the services sector as the national vaccination program continues. Brazil’s National Industry Confederation has also said it expected that in 2021, the country would recover the losses suffered due to the pandemic in 2020. However, the pandemic is not over in Brazil. Last year, Bolsonaro was able to make emergency cash payments to help millions of Brazilians who had lost jobs, but the government was not able to continue the stimulus payments into 2021. Bolsonaro is hoping that the economic recovery and a significant ramping up of the vaccination program will protect him from the political consequences at the ballot box next year when he is likely to face off against former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the presidential election. Lula da Silva has been an outspoken critic of Bolsonaro and his handling of the pandemic, recently calling Bolsonaro a “psychopath” for his mismanagement of the crisis. More than 435,000 Brazilians have died from Covid-19, and while the vaccination program is gaining momentum with more supply coming online, just one in eight Brazilian adults have been fully vaccinated so far. Brazil’s variant known as P1 has hit the country hard, as well as the rest of the region where Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay have recorded surges in the virus due to the more contagious variant from Brazil. Latin America accounts for just 8% of the global population but has one third of all Covid-19 cases in the world.

Iran and Iraq are closing in on a deal to build a short railway link between Basra and the Iranian town of Shalamcheh/Shalamjah which could connect China more closely to Iraq, and Iran to Syria. According to a statement by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, negotiations to build a railway between Iran and Iraq are in their final stages, and multiple agreements and memorandums of understanding have been signed with Jordan and Egypt regarding energy and transportation lines. The project, which has been in the works for several years, is estimated to cost $150m and will be funded from Iran’s Mostazafan Foundation, described as a “semi-government charity.” While the rail line itself would only run about 30km, it holds strategic value to both Iran and Iraq, and could potentially expand the reach of Basra’s port facilities. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praised the development as a “big change” and described the connection to Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean as “very important.” Israel and Syrian opposition parties have both expressed disapproval of the project due to fear of Iran’s increasing influence in Syria and logistical proximity to Syria’s ports. Iran has already established rail links with Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Turkey, and in December 2020 launched its first railway with Afghanistan. In addition to increasing its access to the Mediterranean, the consistent expansion of Iranian rail efforts likely signals Iran’s intent to play a major role in the regional transport of goods, countering U.S. sanctions in the process. Already, Iran has been exporting hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to China, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia despite U.S. sanctions. Oil exports from Iran have steadily increased since last summer, reflecting the nation’s efforts to overcome the negative economic impacts of both sanctions and the pandemic. Such economic activity calls into question the efficacy of U.S. sanctions on Iran and ultimately, whether they are enough to constrain Iran’s strategic and nuclear ambitions.

Ethiopia’s upcoming parliamentary elections have been postponed, stoking fear of further civil unrest with implications for the region. On May 15, Ethiopia’s electoral board announced that parliamentary elections scheduled for June 5 will be delayed for at least several weeks, the second time the vote has been postponed after the initial August 2020 date was canceled due to Covid-19. Last year’s delay heightened tensions between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who viewed Abiy as illegitimate and proceeded to hold a regional vote of their own, which Ethiopia deemed illegal. Since then, the political conflict has evolved into a devastating war replete with thousands of civilian deaths and atrocities like beatings and gang rape. More than 60,000 Tigrayans have fled to refugee camps in Sudan where they face increasingly challenging conditions due to flooding and malnutrition. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe human rights abuses carried out in the Western Tigray, recently stated that the U.S. is “gravely concerned by the increasing number of confirmed cases of military forces blocking humanitarian access” and advocating for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers who have sided with the Ethiopian government against the Tigrayans and are reportedly preventing and stealing aid. The upcoming elections, which come at this time of logistical and security strain within Ethiopia, have been met with critical reactions; the European Union said it would not observe the vote because Ethiopia refused imported communications equipment and could not guarantee independence of its mission, while internal Ethiopian opposition parties have asserted that a national dialogue on a range of issues should come before the election. Exasperating the situation, Ethiopia and Sudan continue to have a contentious border dispute over control of al-Fashaga, an area close to the Tigray region which could be ripe territory for a proxy war between Ethiopia and Sudan should the electoral process further destabilize the nation.