Courtesy of Dr. Juan Cole
Posted on 04/02/2013 by Juan
Syrian dissidents say that some 6,000 people died in Syria in March, the largest one-month toll since the movement to overthrow the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad began two years ago. The UN estimates that over 70,000 have been killed in the fighting.
Of the 6000 who died in March, one third, or 2000, were innocent noncombatants, and 300 of those were children. That means 4000 combatants died, between government troops and rebels.
Meanwhile, the rebels continue to take territory on the ground, now having 70% of the country’s oil wells. They recently advanced into a key district in the northern city of Aleppo in their quest to take the city’s international airport (which has been closed for months).
At the same time, oppositionists continue to attempt to form broader political coalitions inside the country. The USG Open Source Center translated a report from al-Sharq al-Awsat [The Middle East} on Monday:
“Syrian oppositionists from revolutionary blocs announced in Cairo yesterday the establishment of a revolutionary grouping called “The Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Syria.” Lu’ay al-Zu’bi, the Syrian oppositionist and leader of the “Believers Participate Movement” and member of the new front, said it was established to repel three plans that are in the way of the Syrian revolution and trying to hijack it from the track decided by the Syrian people.
The front is made up of several movements and political and revolutionary blocs opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, among them the “Believers Participate”, the “Unified Syrian Bloc”, led by Wahid Saqr (Alawite oppositionist), the “Revolutionary Forces for the Liberation of Syria Grouping” which is led by dissident Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali, the “Democratic National Bloc”, the “Arab Tribes Council”, and the “Field Representation Bureau.”
While leadership sources in the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) denied any knowledge of this front’s establishment, other sources in it have told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that this front does not differ from the other attempts by Syrian oppositionists to establish political blocs and denied that there is any contact or coordination with the “FSA” command about it.
Fahd al-Masri, the “FSA’s” official in the Joint Command’s central media department, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that “the FSA does not interfere in the political action and we do not consider the establishment of several trends opposed to the regime unhealthy but the natural result of the absence of democratic life in Syria for four decades.” He pointed out that “there are in the new front nationalist figures that we respect as we respect the other Syrian opposition spectrum.” He noted at the same time that “the political opposition’s performance has not yet risen to the level of the sacrifices that the Syrian people are making.” “
Aljazeera English says that in view of the gradual expansion of the territory in rebel control, the United Nations has developed a secret contingency plan for Syria should the regime abruptly collapse:
Today Bibi Netanyahu put on a show, a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, before the U.N. General Assembly. His performance was so over the top that it actually reminded me of George C. Scott’s performance as General “Buck” Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Good ‘Ol Bibi showed up with props and ACME-like-Bugs Bunny cartoon to alert the world to a danger that only he seems determined to eradicate in the most destructive and suicidal way. In fact, Good ‘Ol Bibi was as ridiculous and extreme as Ahmadinejad. While he was speaking, i couldn’t help myself thinking that i heard this speech before–it was like a déjà vu experience, and then it hit me: I was in fact listening to and watching Dr. Strangelove talking about the terrible Doomsday Machine and Doomsday Gap. At that point, i stopped worrying about Bibi, about his speech, about his concerns, and learned to love containment. There is something that good ‘ol Bibi needs to learn very fast: ain’t nobody on this side of the Atlantic who’s willing to start a doomsday scenario that no one knows how to end it. So Bibi, go peddle your fear-mongering and warmongering somewhere else.
Here is to Bibi Netanyahu’s U.N. Speech
Syrie: Les 10 implications/conclusions de l’attentat de Damas et de l’assassinat du ministre de la Défense
Great analysis, as always, from our friend Juan Cole.
Courtesy of Juan Cole
Posted on 07/19/2012 by Juan
The bombing of the Security Headquarters of the Baath government of Syria on Wednesday killed the Minister of Defense, the deputy Minister of Defense, and the Assistant to the vice-president and head of crisis management office Gen Hassan Turkomani. It wounded the Minister of the Interior (i.e. head of the secret police) and a member of the national security council. Some reports said that also wounded was Hafez al-Makhlouf, a cousin of the president on his mother’s side of the family and a key security figure. The Makhloufs, especially Ramy, are the business wing of the al-Assad cartel, and their billionaire ways were among the sources of discontent that provoked the uprising.
What does this bombing mean for Syria and the Middle East?
1. It demonstrates that the rebels have sympathizers in high positions within the regime. The bomb had to have been planted by an insider. This situation reminds me of the American dilemma in Vietnam, where we now know that many high-ranking Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were in fact sympathizers with the Communists and basically double agents.
2. It follows upon this conclusion that the al-Assad regime is unlikely to be able to emulate the Algerian military, which crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in a brutal civil war from 1992 through the early zeroes of the present century. Some 150,000 Algerians are said to have died in the dirty war, with atrocities on both sides. But when the smoke cleared, the junta was still in control, and its favored secular civilians were in office. In all that time, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition never laid a glove on any of the high officials or officers. But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front, having a cultural set of affinities and a common source of patronage in the state-owned oil and gas sector.
If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, that ability does not augur well for Bashar al-Assad’s ability to win the long game, as his counterparts did in Algeria.
3. The targets of the bombing were likely intended to send a message to Syria’s minorities. The minister of defense, Daoud Rajha, was a Christian. The Christian minority, which could be as large as 14% of the population, has been on the fence during the revolution, and some actively support the secular nationalist regime because they fear Muslim fundamentalists will come to power. Rajha’s assassination was intended to warn them to join the revolution or at least get out of its way. Likewise, Assef Shawkat, the deputy minister of defense, was an Allawite Shiite and was married to Bushra, the sister of Bashar al-Assad. If it is true that Hafez Makhlouf was wounded, he was another prominent Allawite. The rebels are largely (with significant exceptions) Sunni Muslims, from the majority community that has not typically held its fair proportion of high office.
4. The rein of terror unleashed by the Allawites on the Sunni rebels, using Ghost Brigade death squads, has backfired big time. Many Sunnis formerly allied with the regime have turned on it, including at the highest levels. The defection of the Sunni Tlass family, who had dominated the ministry of defense and regime business interests for decades, is a straw in the wind here.
5. The rocket-propelled grenades smuggled to the opposition by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as part of their proxy war against Iran, are allowing the rebels occasionally to kill tanks and take down helicopter gunships. The more such weapons they have, and the more sophisticated they are, the more they help level the playing field for the rebels.
6. Defections and desertions of Sunni enlisted men and low-level officers could accelerate in the wake of the bombings, as soldiers become convinced that the regime will eventually fall. They won’t want to risk their lives fighting for a ship that is anyway sinking, and won’t want to risk being seen as war criminals in the aftermath.
7. The economic disruptions in the capital could be decisive. With the rebels now fighting in districts like Midan and Tadamun, the Syrian business classes are not going to be making any money for a while. Since for them, the purpose of the Baath Party is to throw them licenses and government contracts, they will turn on it if it is unable to satisfy their needs.
8. The fall of the Baath regime in Syria would leave Hizbullah high and dry. Its rockets and other weapons, and some of its communications and code-breaking abilities, depended on Syrian help. The leader of the Hizbullah Shiites of south Lebanon (a neighbor of Syria), Hassan Nasrullah, gave a speech Wednesday unapologetically supporting the Baath regime and sending condolences to the families of those killed. If the regime does fall, the new government is likely to have a grudge with Hizbullah for a while. The downside of any weakening of Hizbullah is that it could encourage Israeli expansionism in South Lebanon, as in the 1980s and 1990s (Israel’s leaders have long wanted to steal the water in south Lebanon’s rivers).
9. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force among the rebels, and it likely will play an outsized role in a post-Baath Syria. It has ties to the Muslim fundamentalist party, Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Hamas could therefore become and more formidable adversary for Israel, if it is supported by both the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
10. Given the proliferation of medium weapons among the rebels, the longer the civil war goes on, the more likely these arms are to flow into Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, enabling small guerrilla groups in those countries to challenge the status quo. If the Baath hangs on for years rather than months, the whole region could see more decades of instability. That is why Jordan just declared martial law and has begun turning back refugees at the Syrian border, why Israel’s security establishment had an urgent meeting Wednesday, and why Syria’s other neighbors are watching developments there with anxiety and suspicion.
This is a Human Rights Watch video documenting the Syrian government torture methods and torture centers. In it, you will hear testimonies from several opponents to Bashar Al-Assad describing what they endured during their stay in those centers of horror.
I still maintain that the Syrian regime and Bashar Al-Assad are done. He’s toast, and there is no future for him or for his regime in Syria. It is only a matter of time. However, the longer this struggle continues and the bloodier it gets, the more radical the opposition will be, which does not represent a good omen for the post-Bashar Al-Assad period.
Courtesyof Juan Cole
Posted on 07/08/2012 by Juan
Most Western reporting on Libya is colored by what is in my view a combination of extreme pessimism and sensationalism. It has been suggested that because most reporters don’t stay there for that long, many don’t have a sense of proportion. It is frustrating to have faction-fighting in distant Kufra in the far south color our image of the whole country. Tripoli, a major city of over 2.2 million (think Houston), is not like little distant Kufra, population 60,000 (think Broken Arrow, OK)!
In the run-up to the elections held on Saturday, a lot of the headlines read ‘Libya votes, on the brink’ or had ‘Chaos’ in the title. But actually, as the Libya Herald reports, the election went very, very well (which did not surprise me after my visit to three major cities there in May-June). The NYT post-election headline of ‘Libyans risk violence to vote’ is frankly ridiculous; in most of the country that simply was not true, though it was true in parts of Benghazi. Even then, how many people died in violence in this election? I count two, but in any case it is a small number. In Tripoli, the election was described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy. Here are the top ten surprises of the election for Libya watchers:
1. Turnout was about 60%, with 1.6 million casting their ballots. This high turnout is especially impressive given how confusing the election procedures were, with 3,000 candidates and only 80 seats out of 200 set aside for political parties (most newly formed and not well known).
2. There was relatively little election violence, certainly compared to South Asia, where election day often entails dozens, sometimes hundreds, of deaths. The Libya Herald piece quotes the High Electoral Commission as saying, “…of 1,554 polling centres across the country, 24 were unable to operate, including two in Kufra, six in Sidra and eight in Benghazi.”
3. The remnants of Qaddafi supporters made no trouble, and many went to vote enthusiastically. One of the many wrong predictions made last year by opponents of the revolution was that after it was over, there would be an Iraq-style pro-Qaddafi resistance. It turns out that Qaddafi wasn’t actually popular, and now that he is gone no one is interested in making trouble in his name.
4. One of the last cities to fall to the revolutionaries was Bani Walid, and it was alleged for a long time after the revolution to be in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists. This allegation was always a vast exaggeration. There were only a few militiamen there, who made demonstrations downtown. In fact, if anything, it was the revolutionary militias that controlled a city that somewhat resented them because of their high-handedness. Luke Harding of The Guardian, who bothered actually to go to Bani Walid, found people there as excited about the elections as elsewhere, and eager to combat their city’s reputation as a refuge of former regime loyalists. 46,000 had registered to vote, out of 85,000 inhabitants– i.e. most of those eligible to vote must have registered.
5. The formerly upscale city of Sirte, which had been seen by the revolutionaries as favored by Qaddafi, and near which he made his last stand, decided not to boycott the vote after all, according both to Agence France Press and to the following:
Rena Netjes @RenaNetjes
Corresp alHurraTV in #Sirte: “Turnout 70%, women 35-40%. Ppl very very happy to be able to vote for the 1st time” #Lyelect.
There are genuine resentments toward Sirte on the part of the revolutionary cities, and locals complain about discrimination of various sorts. They clearly feel that being well represented in the new parliament is a way of gaining a voice and being reintegrated into the new Libya. It was places like Bani Walid and Sirte from which trouble on election day had been expected, and it did not happen.
6. The Muslim fundamentalist parties that were expected to dominate the new parliament may not do so. First of all, only 80 of the 200 seats are allocated to parties, and the liberal party of former head of Qaddafi’s National Economic Development Board, Mahmoud Jibril, is said to be doing well in early returns and exit polls. Because of the large number of independents and uncertainty with whom they will caucus, predictions about the shape of the government are premature. The West is more secular than the east or the south. In Libya, the remnants of the old regime are called ‘seaweed’ or ‘algae’ (tahallub), i.e. the flotsam left behind when the tide recedes. As in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been a lot of debate around what to do with them. They often have a lot of money, and are regrouping to succeed in the new system. Since a lot of prominent Libyan technocrats had been lured back to the country in the past decade, with Qaddafi’s and his son Saif al-Islam’s attempt to open to the West, leaders like Mahmoud Jibril (al-Warfalli) are considered by some to be leftovers, while others see him as someone who went over to the revolution and served as its first transitional prime minister.
7. Despite the faction-fighting that has plagued some desert cities, such as Zintan and Kufra, in southwest Tripolitania and the Fezzan region of Libya, respectively– its third traditional region after Tripolitania and Cyrenaica– went to the polls quietly and peaceably for the most part. Two of the polling stations in feud-ridden Kufra could not open because of tension. Here’s what my Jabal Nafusa and Fezzan twitter feed looked like:
“Women crowds in Zintan for voting …
9:16 AM – 7 Jul 12 via Twitter for iPhone ·
22h Libya.elHurra Libya.elHurra @FreeBenghazi
July7: Election observers at a Zintan polling station. Reports of good turnout from women but no pics yet #Libya
20h AC Tripolis AC Tripolis @david_bachmann_
Very big crowd in front of voting room for people from #Ghadames – quite noisy, but relaxed #LyElect #gheryan #Libya”
8. A big surprise is that what little election day trouble there was came from the East, from the center of the revolution. Thus, small crowds or small militia contingents attacked or tried to attack polling stations in Ajdabiya, Sidra, Ras Lanouf and Benghazi itself. But aside from a few stations in Sidra and 8 in Benghazi, all of them reopened and some stayed open till midnight to make up for having been closed in the morning. In one incident in Benghazi, pro-election crowds actually drove off a group of states’ rights protesters who want decentralization.
9. Women registered to vote, ran for office, and went to the polling stations in surprisingly high numbers. In some small cities, eyewitnesses thought the women’s lines were much longer than those of the men.
10. Among this generation of Libyans, democracy is really, really popular.
Another excellent post by Dr. Juan Cole.
Posted on 06/24/2012 by Juan
Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mursi has been officially declared the president of Egypt. But under the terms of the military constitutional guidelines issued last Sunday night, he comes into office in the framework of a military government headed by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.
That is, all the doomsaying about Egypt turning into Iran is to say the least premature, since Mursi at the moment is more Tantawi’s vice president than anything else.
Moreover, despite the Orientalist impulse in Western writing to see everything in the Middle East as black and white, as fundamentalist or libertine, Egypt’s political geography has been revealed by this year’s elections to be diverse. It isn’t just puritans versus belly dancers.
Here are the major factions according to the outcome of the first round of presidential elections, in which there were numerous candidates with strong ideological commitments. I was in Egypt for that election and did a lot of interviewing with Egyptians of all stripes, coming away impressed at how all over the place the electorate was. (Obviously I’m using the candidates below as a sort of political shorthand, and there is more overlap than the categories suggest, but this is ballpark):
1. The Labor Left, led by Hamdeen Sabahi (20.17%)
2. Classic liberals, led by Amr Moussa (11.13%)
3. Authoritarian secularists,led by Ahmad Shafiq (23.66%)
4. Muslim liberals, led by Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh (17.47%)
5. Muslim fundamentalist, led by Muhammad Mursi (24.78%)
Mursi won by retaining the fundamentalists and picking up the Muslim liberals and at least some of the Labor Left, and even a few classic liberals such as novelist Alaa al-Aswani. His victory is not solely a victory for the hard line fundamentalists, who probably only accounted for about half of his voters. He owes the Labor Left and those classic liberals who preferred him to the authoritarian Shafiq.
Mursi will now appoint a prime minister and a cabinet (the Egyptian system is a bit like that of France), and he may well reward his non-fundamentalist allies with key cabinet posts. (That pluralism is exactly what did not happen in Iran after the fall of the Mehdi Bazargan government with the Hostage Crisis of 1979).
Moreover, if in fact Egypt now moves to a new constitution and new parliamentary elections by the end of this year, the more diverse political landscape revealed by the first round of the presidential elections may get reflected in parliament in a way that did not happen in the first election after the revolution. I argue that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi hardline fundamentalists did so well last year because the electorate was still afraid of the Mubaraks returning, and they wanted to put the opposition strongly in power. Now, they’ve soured to some extent on the Brotherhood, and want some law and order and economic initiatives, and may well vote in a significantly different way.
Hamdeen Sabahi is forming a labor left party, and labor flexed its muscles in the first presidential round, given him the major port city and Mediterranean province of Alexandria. Alexandria went to Mursi in this second round, but he can’t count on it in the new parliament.
The strong showing of the liberals and the authoritarian leftovers of the old regime, in provinces of the Delta and key districts of Cairo also suggests that some reformulated National Democratic Party (the old party of Hosni Mubarak) may do well in any new parliamentary elections. Could Ahmad Shafiq end up leader of a powerful bloc in the new parliament?
So not only is Mursi hemmed in by the military, he may well end up having to compromise with a more pluralist political landscape by the end of this year. Whereas he could have gotten legislation through the December, 2011 parliament easily, he may have a more uphill battle in any new parliament.
Admittedly, Mursi is now in the position, as an elected president with a clear popular mandate of about 52 percent of the vote, to maneuver against Tantawi’s constraints. But it remains to be seen whether he can succeed. Mursi on Friday gave a speech in which he rejected the Supreme Court’s dissolution of parliament, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood line is that the court had the right to find that a third of the seats, set aside for independents, had been improperly filled by party-backed candidates. But, they say, the executive decision of what exactly to do about that should have been left to the president (e.g. instead of dissolving the whole body of parliament you could have held a do-over for that one-third of seats). Mursi also rejected the military constitutional amendments designed to constrain the president until a new constitution is written.
Among the prerogatives the military claimed was to appoint a new constituent assembly to draft the constitution. But a court-ordered process had already established a constituent assembly, which met over the weekend and insisted they are still in business. Mursi may well back them, setting the stage for one of the first and most important struggles between himself and Tantawi.
Can Mursi force the military to back down on any of these three urgent institutional issues? He certainly can put millions of protesters in the streets if it came to that. But the Brotherhood has a long game, and may well adopt a more piecemeal and less confrontational approach.
One problem for Mursi is in mollifying the half of Egyptians who are absolutely terrified of him, fearing that he wants to turn their fun-loving, moderate country into a puritan, grim, Saudi Arabia. More activist women, Coptic Christians, and the secular-minded middle and upper classes are among these groups. Moreover, the hardline puritan stances he has taken would kill the Egyptian tourism industry (nobody is going on vacation to Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada to wear their street clothes into the water and be deprived of so much as a beer). There are a lot of powerful economic interests in Egypt that depend on tourism, and on foreign investment. Mursi has to prove he can avoid scaring the horses, or he and his party will crash and burn even without military opposition.
It’s official. Mohamed Morsy is the president-elect of Egypt. Finally, the Brotherhood won it. This movement that was established in 1928 by Hassan Al-Bannah has finally achieved one of its objectives. This social, economic, and political movement has endured a tremendous systematic persecution over the years. It is a movement that has gone through phases of radicalization, negotiation, moderation, armed opposition, cooptation, cooperation and finally legalized and rightful opposition, which has ultimately led the Brotherhood to the highest office of the executive in Egypt.
The secret of this movement is no secret at all. It has lasted and overcome obstacles, torture, banishment and so on because it has always had a solid popular basis. It is a movement that is rooted in the hearts of a large number of Egyptians, and it is only fair that this large number of Egyptians got to elect their candidate to the highest office in the land.
You may ask, what now? Well, the hardest, the most taxing and the most ungrateful endeavors await the Brotherhood. They have a long list of serious economic grievances to deal with. From now on, they are going to be judged on their results, not on the perseverance of their resistance and struggle. They either deliver, or they will be voted out. As they say, the hard work starts now Mr. Morsy.
This is the small clip of president Morsy acceptance speech
Joy and Jubilation in Tahrir Square, Cairo
Courtesy of Dr. Juan Cole
Posted on 06/17/2012 by Juan
The initial reaction of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party to the high court decision dissolving parliament had been acquiescence. On Sunday, they got a bit more active, arguing that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) did not have the right to dissolve parliament despite the court ruling (i.e. that it wasn’t the body with legal standing to do so). They also argued that the dissolution must be put to a popular referendum, since it voided the vote of millions of Egyptians.
All of this raises the question of why the Mubarak-appointed judiciary backed by SCAF moved against the parliament, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t believe that the SCAF coup was based on a rational calculation. Rather, I think the generals see the world as a conspiracy against them, and that the basis for their action was likely irrational.
Gen. Omar Suleiman addressed a letter to the Egyptian people Saturday, urging them to vote in the elections but implicitly criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood as arrogant and overbearing, and suggesting that you might hear them now talking about cooperating with everyone, but alleging that such talk is merely manipulative. Suleiman is a former head of military intelligence and was vice president in the last Mubarak government. He had wanted to run for president but was disqualified by the courts on the grounds that he hadn’t gathered enough petition signatures.
When I was in Cairo in May, a reporter told me that Suleiman gave a talk at the al-Ahram Center in which he alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to develop a violent paramilitary capability. Generals such as he view the Brotherhood as not very different from al-Qaeda and as potentially violent, even though the organization gave up violence in the 1970s and has been disciplined about only using civil means to gain power ever since.
It also seems clear that the generals have a conspiracy theory that the United States is somehow behind the Jan. 25, 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, and that Washington is secretly funding the leftist youth groups that spearheaded the big demonstrations then and since. That is why they keep harassing foreigners and journalists who seem too interested in Egyptian politics, and why they aired commercials recently discouraging Egyptians from speaking to foreigners.
Only a conspiracy theorist could simultaneously hold that the Muslim Brotherhood is a theocratic cabal with paramilitary aspirations and that the US is supporting it and other revolutionary forces.
Another alleged foreign player in Egypt is Qatar, which Egyptians see as a supporter and funder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Mufti or chief Muslim legal adviser of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, on Sunday riposted to an attack on him by the Muslim televangelist at al-Jazeerah Arabic, Yousuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi had blasted Gomaa for saying he was neutral in the presidential contest. Qaradawi insisted that all clerics had to come out for Muhammad Mursi, the Brotherhood candidate. (Actually using the pulpit to promote a partisan candidate is illegal in Egypt). Gomaa implied that Qaradawi is after personal glory and thinks he is a real Muslim while others are ersatz.
The subtext here is that many Egyptians see Qaradawi as a Muslim Brotherhood icon supported by the Qatari government. One Egyptian told me that when Qaradawi showed up in Tahrir Square in Feb. 2011 during the attempt overthrow Hosni Mubarak, it reminded him of Vladimir Lenin showing up in Russia after the initial revolution. Of course, Lenin later overthrew the parliamentary regime that briefly emerged, making Russia a communist dictatorship in the October Revolution of 1917. My friend was wondering if Qaradawi hoped to play Lenin in subverting a democratic revolution and putting in power an ideological one-party state.
Dr. Cole was in Libya. So, I am tempted to use the cliché and say that he went, he saw, and he is recounting what he witnessed. So, without further ado, here is a good analysis from Dr. Cole from Libya
Courtesy of Dr. Juan Cole.
Posted on 06/05/2012 by Juan
I spent May 27 through June 3 in Libya, and flew out of Tripoli airport to Cairo a day before a small Tarhouna militia came there to demonstrate against the disappearance of its leader. Despite that close call, I came back optimistic about Libya over-all. The Tarhouna demonstration was dealt with efficiently by the new Libyan army, which took control of the airport weeks ago, and there is every reason to believe that it will reopen shortly. When I flew in and out of the Tripoli airport, there were no militiamen there, just regular army and police (who have distinctive red-marked vehicles). There are also now regular flights from Cairo, e.g., to provincial cities like Misrata.
There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of subsaharan African heritage are bothered in the streets, etc., etc. The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Qaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story.
Henry Kissinger, in his recent op-ed against intervention in Syria, listed the erasure of the Libyan state as an argument against such interventions. I read the allegation with disbelief. Libya is not like Somalia! It isn’t even like Yemen. (The Libyans I talked to about Yemen sympathized with the country’s problems but were astonished to hear that some Western observers looked a their situations as similar!)
So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.
As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.
I caught a little celebration by recently graduated Libyan police at Martyr’s Square in Tripoli last week:
And here is a little set of carnival rides near Martyr’s Square in the capital:
Children’s Rides in Tripoli, Libya, June 2012
Shopping in Tripoli
Life is pretty normal. I talked to a Libyan of African heritage who had worked in Germany 14 years and recently had returned. He said he is *much* happier in Libya, even though he is working two jobs (one of them teaching Arabic). A friend of mine is organizing a music festival in the capital. People are gearing up for the election of the National Congress, which will draft a new constitution and gradually create a new government.
Cities unhappy with the foot-dragging of the transitional national government have simply staged their own municipal elections. Benghazi just held its successfully, and Misrata did this months ago. I met the husband of a newly-minted female city council member in Benghazi; she was the number one vote-getter among the candidates that ran, and may chair the council. The municipal governments have the legitimacy of the ballot box and are beginning to address local problems.
Campaigning in Benghazi, May 2012
So if you aren’t in danger of being mugged at night in Tripoli or Benghazi, are there other problems? Sure, loads of them. While I was there the dock workers went on strike at Tripoli to complain about the poor management of the port. Then, in an oil state, money flows to municipalities rather than cities raising money through taxes, and the transitional government still isn’t very good about remitting the money. There is a human rights situation that needs to be addressed in the small town of Tawergha, the militias of which committed war crimes on behalf of Gaddafi; Tawergha has been cleared of its inhabitants, and they need to be allowed to return to their homes. And while security on the whole is fine for individuals in the big northern cities, it probably is still not entirely satisfactory for new investors bringing in expensive equipment to places like Benghazi (though BP has decided to get back into Libya). You have occasional moments of militia protest like the one yesterday at the airport in Tripoli.
But I was struck at the air of normality everywhere I went, and by the obvious comfort people had in circulating, selling and going about their lives. There are no bombings, there is no civil war, there is no serious secessionism. One man told me that the biggest change is that people are no longer afraid. They had been captive of the revolutionary committees and the secret police. And that end of political fear, the Libyans I talked to insisted, made the uncertainties of this transitional period all worthwhile.
I went to Libya expecting to find people nervous about going out, expecting to find a lot of shops shuttered, and expecting to be stopped at militia checkpoints (which was common in Beirut in the late 1970s when I lived there in the first years of the Civil War). Maybe such things exist in smaller provincial cities that I didn’t visit, like Gadames in the South. I don’t know. In the urban north, I found a society actively reconstructing itself where people clearly were going about their ordinary lives, where stores were open and people were sitting in sidewalk cafes, where there were no militiamen on the streets, no checkpoints, and where there were actually traffic cops directing traffic.
So while I wouldn’t want to minimize what difficulties remain, and while I am aware that a week on the ground won’t reveal all the society’s problems, I can say with certainty that the image found in the Western press of the place is far more negative than what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard from locals in Arabic-language conversations.
And I can say categorically that Henry Kissinger is wrong about Libya.
A good analysis by Juan Cole of the results of the Egyptian presidential election and how the run-off round might look like. The run-off round will be a matter of electoral coalitions and who is going to put in place and federate a large enough group to bring about victory. I still think that Mursi has an edge, but let’s keep an eye on the strategies of both candidates in these 2 coming weeks.
Courtesy of Juan Cole
Posted on 05/26/2012 by Juan
It now seems clear that the run-off in the Egyptian presidential election will be between Muhammad Mursi of the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, former Aviation Minister in the Mubarak government and the deposed dictator’s last prime minister. This outcome is a polarizing one and promises a rocky road ahead for Egypt’s attempt to transition to democracy. Shafiq was at some points on Friday in the third place, but he pulled ahead later in the day as Cairo and some rural votes came in.
Although the official results won’t be announced until Monday, the results from the local polling stations are unlikely to change the outcome, since all the ballots by now have been counted and reported out.
The outcome shows a strong “law and order” desire on the part of the Egyptian electorate. In a poll that I discussed last Monday, respondents put security issues way ahead of economic ones. Shafiq is such a law and order candidate, and the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi is promising more Islamic law, which Egyptians tend to interpret as a way to reign in hooliganism. The disruptions of the 2011 revolution, the subsequent poor morale among the police, the increase in firearms availability, and the release by the Mubarak government in its last days of thousands of criminals from prison, have all contributed to a mild uptick in crime. Egypt is still safer than most Western capitals, but people here had been living under a police state where there was very little crime and few public disturbances, and so it seems to them as though there is a crime wave. I live in the Detroit area, so I laugh at their supposed ‘crime wave,’ but to them it is a problem.
Ironically, the preference for a law and order candidate after a period of social upheaval in Egypt mirrors what happened in the United States in the 1960s and after. The anti-war protests of the counter-culture and the damage done Southern Democrats by the Civil Rights movement contributed to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to step down (a la Mubarak). But this mainly youthful upheaval was followed by the victories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Religious Right thereafter in national politics. Just as American leftist radicals like David Horowitz gradually allied with the right wing of the Republican Party and with the Evangelicals, so novelist Alaa al-Aswany, a supporter of the 2011 revolution, has just come out for the Muslim Brotherhood in the runoff elections. Many on the revolutionary left will just be alienated, but some will decide that anything is better than a Mubarak clone.
Over a fifth of the votes went to a pro-labor, leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Some of his constituency probably also voted for liberal Muslim candidate Abdel Moneim Abou’l-Futouh, and it is not impossible that in an American-style two-party primary contest, Sabahi would have been one of the two front-runners. But the Egyptian system is more like the French, with multiple candidates who span the political spectrum. In Egypt we have the opposite of what just happened in France, where the extreme right first stole votes away from the right wing Nicolas Sarkozy, and then largely declined to rally around him in the run-offs. In Egypt, the centrist Abou’l-Futouh probably stole votes from leftist Sabahi, allowing a secular right wing candidate and a religious right wing candidate into the run-offs.
Egyptians I’ve talked to are mostly philosophical about this outcome, which is probably the worst possible one for the stability of the country. They point out that the election appears to have been fair and transparent, and that the ballot box will give legitimacy to whoever wins. They also say that after all there will be another election in four years, and if whoever wins has done a poor job, the electorate will throw the rascals out. The hold of fear and dictatorship, they say, has been permanently broken. And if the government starts putting on airs and veering toward authoritarianism before the four years is up, they say, the people will just go en masse to Tahrir Square and cause another government to fall. I am struck by the self-confidence of the Egyptians and their general lack of fear of the future, their conviction that they can handle whatever situation arises.
The American political elite, very attentive to big money in politics and to the Israel lobbies, almost certainly is pulling for Shafiq to win. Mursi and the Brotherhood have a long history of hostility to Israel, and talk about revising the Camp David Peace Accord of 1979. (Camp David was supposed to lead to a resolution of the Palestinians’ problems but instead became a separate peace for Egypt and a means whereby the Israelis could further displace and expropriate the Palestinians, denying them any citizenship in a state and keeping them as riffraff who can be victimized at will. In this respect, a Brotherhood government in Egypt that stood up for the Palestinians would be a positive step).
The Americans will also be concerned about Iran and oil. As for oil, ten percent of the world supply goes through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Neither a Mursi nor a Shafiq government will likely affect the functioning of the Suez.
Egypt under either is likely to be less hawkish against Iran, but the way the Bahrain and Syria crises have unfolded makes it unlikely that the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood will want to get too cozy with the Shiite ayatollahs. (The Brotherhood supports the Syrian uprising, which Iran opposes. The Brotherhood is close to the Gulf oil monarchies that are helping crush the Shiite protesters in Bahrain, whom Iran favors). In fact, Sunni authorities have been cracking down on the handful of Egyptian Shiites who have recently dared try to open places of worship. Shafiq will presumably be on much the same page with the Pentagon on security issues.
The outcome of the election will mainly affect Egypt’s domestic situation. But it could work in unexpected ways. If the Brotherhood wins, they will become the Establishment, and the Egyptian youth may swing further to the secular left in reaction. (Some young women are already abandoning their headscarves to protest Brotherhood dominance of parliament).
The important questions for Egypt are probably not the ones the outside world is thinking about. Someone at the top needs to root out the culture of corruption in the government and business here, if they are ever to get any substantial foreign investment. The Muslim fundamentalists are known for being against corruption, but it isn’t clear that they can or will deliver on a national scale, as happened in Turkey.
And the Egyptians need to rework their industrial system so as to make things like light textiles at a quality and price that will allow them to increase sales. Heavier industry must also be further developed.
The Egyptian state needs to invest in infrastructure and education. You can’t have a prosperous modern country if your sidewalks are all broken and used mainly as parking lots or bathrooms, if you have few traffic signals or pedestrian crosswalks, and if you have 2000 students in a lecture course and the professor is paid $60 a month.
To that end, the state needs to tax the Egyptian wealthy and begin having money in its budget other than foreign aid or rents like the Suez Canal tolls and the gas and oil money (which isn’t that much).
Frankly, neither Mursi nor Shafiq strikes me as a Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey’s fabulously successful prime minister who has helped bring that country into the G-20). But someone should tell them that Egypt has a choice between becoming Bangladesh or becoming Turkey — and corruption, foreign investment, reformed industry and education have to be addressed if it wants to achieve its potential.
Also, pay attention to the sidewalks and traffic crosswalks. People shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get to the other side of the road, and preventing foot traffic down town didn’t work to save the state anyway.