Week of July 8

The Egyptian brown quartzite head of the God Amun with features of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, circa 1333–1323 BCE. Credit: Christie’s

Algeria entered a period of great uncertainty on Tuesday as its interim president’s mandate expired. After former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted in April, Abdelkader Bensalah stepped into office for 90 days to create some stability and organize new elections. However, presidential elections planned for July were scrapped, extending Bensalah’s presidency indefinitely. The vote is said to have been postponed due to the army (a prominent and powerful Algerian institution) fearing that instability in neighboring Libya would encourage armed groups to exploit Algeria during its democratic transition. Last week, tens of thousands of Algerians gathered in the capital city Algiers to demand that allies of Bouteflika be completely eradicated from the government; many consider Bensalah to be a close ally of Bouteflika. In response to these protests, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah warned protesters against trying for a “civilian, and not military, state” and reaffirmed the army’s support for Bensalah. Last month, Salah called those who opposed the military traitors and enemies of the country.

A battle over a small statue of King Tut’s head continued to unfold in London this week, as Egypt asked Interpol to help get the artifact back following its auction at Christie’s last week. Egypt claims that Christie’s provided no documentation proving legal ownership of the 3,000 year old statue, which sold for $5.9 million to a private buyer, and that it is the cultural property of Egypt. The fight is one of many in an ongoing discussion of how to establish and define ownership of cultural heritage, especially items that may have been stolen or removed from the country in the colonial period. Last fall, French President Macron issued a statement that it would call for the return of all African art taken “without consent” through colonial violence, but he ultimately abandoned the stance. Although many countries have negotiated for art returns with museums, the Egyptian government, which has engaged a law firm in London to sue Christie’s for the return of the statue and has asked Interpol to help track it down, will be among the first to take on private collectors. 

U.S. missiles found in Libyan rebel camp were first sold to France. Credit: Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

On Wednesday, French-owned missiles were found in a camp of Libyan rebels loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar, who is fighting to overthrow the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Read more about the origins of Haftar’s attempted coup here. The American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles are usually found only in the hands of close American allies, but these weapons were laying around a mountainous rebel camp north of Tripoli. The missiles had been bought by France in 2010, but the French government denies having transferred them to Haftar (an action that would violate American sales agreements and the UN arms embargo). France did, however, acknowledge that the weapons had been French-owned, explaining that they were no longer operational and had been left behind by a French counter-terrorism team. The French might not be under such intense scrutiny if they hadn’t been so sympathetic to Haftar back in April when the warlord first began attempting a coup. France has long considered Haftar to have the strength needed to stabilize the country and strike against terrorists. Meanwhile, the UN-backed official Libyan government doesn’t trust the French, with the Libyan Interior Minister commenting that “the dung leads to the camel… France implicated itself when it said the Javelins were with a French security team. If the Javelins belonged to a French security team, that means France has admitted it was present militarily and officially in Gharyan to support Haftar.”

The Iranian-Western relationship remained tense this week as attempts in the EU to defuse the situation were offset by a new crisis in the Strait of Hormuz. On Thursday, London reported that three Iranian ships had attempted to block a British oil tanker passing through the strait. The Iranian ships tried to physically block the tanker, without weapons, before complying with verbal warnings to retreat. The near-altercation comes after the UK impounded an Iranian oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar that they suspected was carrying fuel to Syria in violation of the embargo (although they have since offered to return the tanker provided it isn’t used to send oil to Syria). The series of almost-incidents has created issues for diplomats in the European Union attempting to maintain what they can of the 2015 nuclear deal. Last week, Iran exceeded agreed-upon uranium enrichment levels outlined in the deal, and said it would return to compliance only if the economic incentives of the deal were delivered as promised. EU officials have been searching for trade options to offset the U.S.’s withdrawal in an attempt to keep Iran from further developing its nuclear program. The relationship between Iran and the West (particularly the United States), and the situation in the Persian Gulf remain extremely tense — observers warn that the slightest provocation my push the detente into armed conflict, or motivate the Iranian government to more seriously pursue weapons-grade uranium. 

A woman drinks a Coke and smokes a Marlboro cigarette at a cafe in downtown Tehran in July. American brands can be seen throughout Iran despite heavy sanctions and heightened tensions between the two countries. Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported on the integration of American products in Iran. Despite the heavy sanctions on Iran that seem to increase on a weekly basis, Western protects are still widely available in the Islamic Republic. Brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi symbolize the American lifestyle, something that is very attractive to many Iranians. It is common to sip one of these sodas — bottled within Iran — after enjoying a kebab at a trendy restaurant. Coca-Cola held a 28% market share in Iran in 2016 and Pepsi held around 20%. Representatives from Coca-Cola say that, in keeping with American sanctions policies, their company “does not have any ownership interest in the Iran bottler” and merely sells concentrate for the soda. American products found in Iran are hardly limited to soda — Iranians also seek out western-style fashions such as jeans, American films, pop music, and popular western condiments like Tabasco sauce. Two Iranian students stated that “we love Americans” and expressed desires for iPhones and fast food restaurants like McDonalds. American fashion is of particular interest to Iranians: Iranian jeans manufacturer Par Group produces 3 million square meters of denim a month. This may seem at odds with the perceptions many westerners have of American-hating Iranians, but Iran’s younger generation in particular has been increasingly vocal about their desire to modernize and westernize.

On Sunday, Turkey’s president said Trump has the authority to waive sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian air defense systems and should find a ‘middle ground’ in the dispute. The comments came two days after Turkey welcomed the first batch of advanced Russian S-400 missile defense system parts even after ample warning that such a move would result in U.S. sanctions. Erdogan seemed to be relying on wishful thinking that Trump would act on the sympathy he expressed for Turkey’s position when the two leaders spoke at the G20 summit in Japan last month. There, Trump blamed the weapons deal between Russia and Turkey on the previous Obama administration because it would not sell Turkey it the American Patriot defense system made by Raytheon. Nonetheless, Trump administration officials are unlikely to waver; Secretary of State Pompeo said on Sunday that “the law requires that there be sanctions and I’m confident that we will comply with the law and President Trump will comply with the law.” The sanctions are based on Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a federal law passed in 2017 that imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia, and which also forbid countries from purchasing weapons from them.

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