Monday

26th Sep 2016

EU builds situation room for Arab League in Cairo

  • Arab League meeting room in Cairo. 'In Egypt, the crisis is happening in Tahrir Square. You can watch it from the window' (Photo: Bahrain ministry of foreign affairs)

Catherine Ashton's foreign service has built a situation room for the Arab League in Cairo to help handle future crises.

Agostino Miozzo, Ashton's top official on civilian crisis response, told EUobserver on Monday (25 June) the "red telephone" project is creating new "trust."

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"The flow of secure, reliable information in real time is essential for a civilian protector ... This will create trust with important partners in a conflict-prone part of the world," he said.

"If there is a terrorist attack, for instance, we need to know who to talk to. We have had huge difficulties in the past to find out exactly what is happening with European citizens on the ground ... We need reliable people on the other side of the line."

EU officials began installing €1.9-million-worth of computers, TV screens and satellite communications last November in a room one floor above Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby's office in the Egyptian capital.

The material includes Tarika - open source intelligence monitoring and scenario-planning software developed for the European Commission before Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS) came along.

The Arab League room was switched on in spring and is currently manned 16 or 18 hours out of 24. It will be inaugurated by Ashton and Elaraby once the dust settles after Egyptian elections.

The EU expects the league in future to buy satellite imagery on the open market.

It also expects Arab countries' foreign ministries and EU countries' foreign ministries to link up to the new facility to create a "pan-Arab" information centre.

The man in charge of the situation room, a senior Egyptian diplomat, and eight of his staff, are in Brussels for three days this week to see how the EEAS crisis centre works and to get to know EU diplomats.

Miozzo said the Arab staff are mostly young university graduates with IT experience who speak Arabic, English and French. Some of them are former journalists.

Another EU official noted: "In Egypt, the crisis is happening in Tahrir Square. You can watch it from the window [of the Arab League building]. Some of the people operating the computers have scars on their hands from when they took part in protests."

Miozzo added: "With this instrument, they [Ashton and Elaraby] will be able to talk immediately, to have a video conference with each other ... They may need to have a video conference linking other people, linking [the UN envoy on Syria] Kofi Annan for example, linking some [EU] member states, or the US, or Russia. At any given moment we might need to link to anybody, to Israel for example. Why not?"

He said it took long negotiations to overcome the Arab League's initial "scepticism" about Western "intrusion."

But the project has attracted interest from other parties.

The EEAS is developing a similar system for the African Union headquarters in Addis Abbaba. It is also in talks to build a crisis room tailored to natural disasters for the league of Asian countries, Asean, in Jakarta.

"In the medium to long term, we might also do something with Central and Latin American countries," Miozzo said.

Recalling his time as head of Italy's civilian protection centre during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, he noted: "There was a black hole for days on end. Nobody knew anything about how many casualties there were, how many Italians were affected, and [EU] embassies were in a total panic. I was there one day after [the tsunami struck] in Sri Lanka and it was a disaster."

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