The Takeaway: Hagel: “I don’t think we can afford to abandon Iraq”

The lead: Hagel spoke with Sisi “more than 50 times” after 2013 coup that overthrew Morsi


Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held one of the most important roles in the US government when a coup ousted President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, a key Middle Eastern ally of Washington’s, in July 2013. Hagel become a point person for the US government afterward, speaking with coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “more than 50 times” to steady the US-Egypt relationship.

Background: Hagel served as US senator from Nebraska from 1997-2009; co-chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2009-2013; and as secretary of defense from 2013-2015. In the Senate, he was a member of the Foreign Relations and Select Intelligence Committees. He spoke with me in the latest “On the Middle East” Al-Monitor podcast this week.

Here are just a few highlights of the interview:

On Morsi: Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, narrowly won election for president in 2012 after popular demonstrations led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Hagel said that on his first trip to Egypt as secretary of defense in 2013, “I didn’t sense that I was talking to the president of a large and important nation, who really has any confidence in his own decisions, or that he could make his own decisions.”

On Sisi: Hagel’s conversations with Sisi, who became president of Egypt in June 2014, served as a kind of diplomatic lifeline for US-Egypt ties as many in the Obama administration wanted to cut off military and economic aid in response to the coup. Hagel describes Sisi, his onetime counterpart as defense minister, as both clever and confident, if at times elusive, referring at one point to Sisi’s “Abraham Lincoln speech” to justify the coup. During their many talks, Hagel pressed Sisi to loosen up on restrictions during the post-coup crackdown. Hagel adds that Israel made it “very clear” that it didn’t want the United States to cut security ties with Egypt.

On Iraq: “I don’t think we can afford to abandon Iraq…nor should Iraq or anyone else look to the US after almost 20 years to continue combat missions.”

On Joe Biden: “I don’t think there is an American today that understands foreign policy as well as Joe Biden, as effective as Joe Biden, his personal style, his relationships.”

On Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We may not like Putin…but we have to deal with him…face it directly and be creative.”

Listen here: Listen here to the full interview with former Secretary Hagel, and sign up for “On the Middle East” on your favorite podcast platform.


Three quick takes on Egypt, Turkey and Jordan:


1. Egypt: Government cracks down on women social media influencers

“The Egyptian government has expanded its crackdown on free expression to target YouTubers and social media influencers, particularly women, detaining and prosecuting several in recent weeks,” writes Shahira Amin. Egypt’s “cybercrime law has been criticized by free speech advocates and rights groups including the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which said the law ‘legalizes the blocking of websites and full surveillance of Egyptians.’”

Read Amin’s article here.



2. Turkey: Erdogan threatens to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communication chief this week flashed the “Hagia Sophia” card – where the former church (and now a museum) would be converted back into a mosque — in what Kadri Gursel calls the “holy grail” for Turkey’s Islamist movement.

Background: “The Hagia Sophia — ‘Holy Wisdom’ in Greek — was built as a church during Byzantine times in 537 and functioned as such for 916 years before the Ottomans conquered Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and converted the edifice into a mosque on the same day,” Gursel explains. “Almost half a millennium later, on Nov. 24, 1934, the Hagia Sophia became a museum by a Council of Ministers decree under the modern Turkish republic.”

Final battle for Islamists: “The Hagia Sophia is the only subject of ‘victimhood’ that the movement has left for political use after the abolition of the headscarf ban for public servants and students, starting from secondary school,” Gursel explains. The symbolism of the Hagia Sophia is an especially welcome distraction as Turkey wrestles with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not as easy as it seems: “Converting the Hagia Sophia is not as easy as it might seem — and not only because of the outcry that such a move would trigger in the Christian world,” Gursel writes. “The Hagia Sophia’s museum status allows the coexistence of Islamic and Christian symbols in the edifice. Its conversion to a mosque open to worship would raise religious and political complications.”

Our take: Erdogan might use the May 29 anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul to stoke the issue among his Islamist populist base or, in the most extreme scenario, even announce the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque.

Read Gursel’s article here.



3. Jordan: King weighs options to respond to annexation

King Abdullah has warned of “a massive conflict” between Jordan and Israel “if Israel really annexed the West Bank in July,” and that Jordan is weighing all options in response.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said again May 26 that he will not miss a “historic opportunity” to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, considering it a “top task” of the unity government.

But, what, exactly, would Jordan do in response if Israel goes ahead with annexing settlements in the West Bank? Is “massive conflict” really being contemplated? What does that mean?

Steps short of war: Osama Al Sharif has the scoop on the likely initial response by Jordan to annexation. “Al-Monitor has learned that Jordan is considering, among other options, suspending parts of the 1994 peace treaty claiming that the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley violates the delineation of borders between Israel and Jordan, in addition to being illegal under international law and pertinent United Nations resolutions,” he writes. “Immediate reaction may include expelling the Israeli ambassador in Amman and recalling the Jordanian ambassador in Tel Aviv.”

Existential threat: “The unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank is seen as presenting an existential threat to Jordan’s national security,” explains Sharif. “It not only renders the two-state solution irrelevant, but it resurrects some far-right Israeli claims that Jordan is a de facto Palestinian state. It also raises fears about the fate of over 2 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan. Jordan had not supported Trump’s peace vision, unveiled last January, and rallied Arab and international support for the two-state solution.”

Read Sharif’s article here.

One cool new thing: New major archaeological discovery

Tourists take pictures at the burial chamber and sarcophagus of King Djoser inside the standing step pyramid of Saqqara, south of Cairo, Egypt, March 5, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.

A joint Egyptian-Spanish archaeological mission has announced a major discovery of an ancient Roman burial site in the Bahnasah region, in Minya governorate.

The head of the mission said in a statement that the excavations also uncovered eight tombs from the Roman era with a domed and nonengraved roof. Inside of these tombs, several Roman tombstones, bronze coins, small crosses and clay seals were found, Rasha Mahmoud reports.

Bahnasa, which located on the west bank of the Nile, was a major city during the Roman era, home to more than 30,000 monks and a large number of monasteries.

Read Mahmoud’s article here.

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