A Tale of Two Bombings: Libya too Weak, Egypt too Strong

On Tuesday, someone set up a Soviet-vintage 107 mortar launcher in a car outside the five-star Corinthia hotel in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and lobbed a mortar from it, apparently by remote control. The launch caused the car to catch on fire. The mortar shell hit a residential apartment building and put a hole in the wall in an elderly couple’s residence. They were unharmed, if startled, and a fire brigade came to extinguish the resulting fire as well as the one in the car.

It is possible that the mortar was intended for the Corinthia. Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who was selected by parliament after last year’s elections and has served ever since, has an office in an upper floor of the Corinthia. I’ve been to the hotel, in search of a fast wifi connection when I was in Tripoli last summer, and it deserves the five star rating. What few foreign journalists and businessmen there are in Tripoli often stay there.

Zidan had been in exile in Geneva in the Gaddafi period, where he was a lionized human rights activist. He says he wants to do something serious about post-revolution Libya’s militia problem. The Libyan military was a small elite force made up of officers loyal to Gaddafi because of regional or tribal considerations, along with hired mercenaries. It collapsed during the 2011 revolution, and still has not been significantly rebuilt. As a result, many security duties are still in the hands of popular militias that were thrown up by the revolution. Zidan says he wants to do something serious about this problem, and has repeatedly angered militia leaders by talking this way.

Bombs are still rare in the capital, Tripoli, unlike in the second city, Benghazi, which has been plagued by attacks on police stations, clinics and Western embassies. But there is occasionally a violent incident of this sort, because militiamen are unhappy about something (low pay, late pay, no pay, prospect of being forcibly disbanded and rendered penniless).

The G8 at their summit in June obtained an agreement from member nations to train some 7,000 Libyan troops, and 2,000 are scheduled to go to Britain soon. Libya, with only 6.5 million people, doesn’t need a huge army. Tunisia is a bigger country, and its is 35,000 strong. However, it will take a long time to produce even 25,000 well-trained and disciplined Libyan troops at this rate. Moreover, many of the militias were given weaponry by Qatar and France and are quite formidable, so demobilizing them by force is likely to produce substantial fireworks. Libya should, of course, integrate those militiamen into the regular army who seem suited to it, but they should be split up into mixed regiments and trained away from their original militia commitments. If there are too many militiamen to absorb, the rest should be given cushy desk jobs in return for turning in their weapons. Libya’s government is very wealthy and could afford to take these steps.

Some of the problem, especially in Benghazi, derives not from militiamen but from radical Muslim fighters who cut their teeth in Afghanistan or another jihad battleground. These will eventually need to be taken on, because they are not assimilable into state institutions and they are a major source of violence.

In any case, Prime Minister Zidan needs to get hold of the security situation gradually, deploying the newly trained troops and newly bought military equipment. Libya has
made some steps lately toward forming a parliamentary sub-body of 60 members to draft a new constitution. This process will eventually allow elections for a new parliament that might be more respected and stable than the interim government. But the main problem as far as I can see is finding ways to demobilize the militias. (And no, the security problems wouldn’t justify keeping Gaddafi in power. Libya is going through hard times, but there is space to learn. That wasn’t true 3 years ago).

Libya’s mortar shell fell because the country doesn’t have much of an army and its state is woefully weak.

On Wednesday morning, a bomb went off in the Delta depot city of Mansoura, in front of the offices of the state security police, killing one person and wounding 19, mostly innocent bystanders. Such bombings are rare in the Nile Valley and the Delta, though common in the lawless Sinai Peninsula.

The last time Egypt had a wave of bombings and other terrorism violence was in the 1990s, when the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya) and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri (an al-Qaeda component) were active.

The hard line fundamentalist wing of the believers in political Islam contained former terrorists or people who declared their willingness to turn to violence if Muhammad Morsi was deposed. He was in fact overthrown by a coalition that included millions of youth in the streets and the military high command. Mansoura’s bombing is an indication that Muslim fundamentalists may not go quietly, and that we could be in for another iteration of the 1990s.

The bombing comes after a Monday when armed Muslim Brothers are accused of mounting an attack on left-liberal youth protesters in Tahrir Square, leaving several people dead. Pro-Morsi marchers claim that two of their members were killed in sniping.

If Libya’s bombing came about because of a weak state and strong militias, the explosion in Mansoura was, in contrast, an expression of frustration by Muslim fundamentalists angry that the Egyptian military was strong enough to overthrow Morsi, in conjunction with the massive street crowds. Although Morsi was engaged in a slow-motion coup of his own against liberal institutions in Egypt, simply removing a duly elected president of a major country was very dangerous for security in Egypt and risks throwing the country into Algeria-style civil strife.

Egypt doesn’t need troop training or military equipment. It has the biggest and best Arab army. What it needs is democracy training, both for the Muslim Brotherhood and for those anti-Morsi political forces who don’t seem to understand human rights law. Some now want to ban religious parties, pushing the Brotherhood back underground.

Folks, the way you keep the Egyptian state secular is put it in the constitution and then make changing the constitution very, very hard. You don’t ban parties or party platforms, you create the framework within which they have to act. But there are no guarantees in life, and getting used to that is also part of democracy.

32 Responses

  1. Training in democracy? Why should we train people abroad to repeat our mistakes? Far more important is training them not to torture, to allow the expression of contraversial ideas, to create a system of fair trials, and to impose term limits on political and economic decision makers, as just a few examples.

  2. And no, the security problems wouldn’t justify keeping Gaddafi in power.

    It’s depressing to me that this needs to be pointed out. When did people on the left start making arguments that “Those people needs strong hand,” or “Order is more important that liberation?”

    • I have a better question. When is everyone going to stop pretending that bloody civil war is the exception in regime change scenarios and not the rule?

      • Since the Libyan regime change began with a bloody civil war, I’m having a very hard time agreeing that yours is a better question.

      • Are you under the impression that the people who set out to change the regime in Tripoli – that is, the Libyan people – didn’t realize they were engaged in a war?

        I’m having serious trouble figuring out your point.

  3. You’re one of my most informative sources on world events, Professor. Your article on Syria the other day really opened my eyes to the true nature of the conflict.

  4. Dr Cole,

    While I respect your ongoing belief in parliamentary elections do you believe that people in the ME, as rational voters choose their leaders in consideration of the long term well being of their countries?

    In Turkey, the average education is 6.5 years. It is slowly improving but any statistic you get from the country will show you how much civil rights and liberties were hurt by the Islamist AKP.

    Just today Reporters Sans Frontiers report shows Turkish press freedom is down again. Our press is number 154 out of 179 countries surveyed. That is down from 98th is 2005.

    I never liked our coup prone military. Yet, between two evils I am not so sure anymore.

    Care to comment?

    • Democracy is on a spectrum, not a single phenomenon. But frankly if India can do it so can Turkey– India’s literacy rates and per capita gdp are much smaller than Turkey’s.

      • I surely hope so. Yet we are ruled by a government that thinks doctors should not take care of anti-government protesters when they are wounded. They call protestors terrorists.

        And considering what the democratically elected BJP did to India’a Muslims… again I would suggest democracies don’t work well in very uneducated countries.

        I am not even considering the democratically legitimate governments of Israel who have been torturing Palestinians for decades.

        Yet, I don’t know what the alternative is…

      • True. But let’s also examine the institutions which emerged in India over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries compared with what transpired in Turkey during the same period. What was the Ottoman legacy compared to the British colonial legacy as it pertains to creating the conditions, however imperfectly, for representative government?

        • Well, for what it is worth, the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy after a popular uprising insisting on the rule of law for the first time in 1876. It didn’t last, but it isn’t as if Turks have been strangers to democratic ideas and institutions.

        • Indeed not. There’s a great tradition in TC as in other countries (like GWB’s USA) of claiming democracy as what your opponent is opposed to and why we need a hyperactive security apparatus.

    • And civil rights and liberties were somehow protected by the generals?

      Moreover, i don’t know what rational means really the way you are using it. Rational is about maximizing one’s utility, and if someone votes for AKP and that vote maximizes his/her utility, therefore that voter is a rational actor.

      Furthermore, i think we need to stop insulting voters by calling them irrational and idiots when they vote for the other camp. If voters vote for the other guys, that means that the other guys did a better job than you at getting their message out, recruiting voters, increasing their PID, mobilizing their base and getting them to the polls–and that is democracy.

      • We live in a country where calling the other side “infidel terrorists” since they defend the separation of mosque and state gets you a minimum 20%.

        Sounds rational to you?

        If Bush got votes by scaring Americans that “the terrorists were going to get you,” Islamists in Turkey kept scaring people by saying seculars wanted to get their daughters naked. (And they scared people of communism earlier in the 70s by telling them all communists wanted was to sleep with their wives or take their cows away)

        And don’t forget that sometimes when you vote for your interests the end results are not optimal in the long run. Everybody enjoys low taxes when they are supported by privatizations that destroy the future budgets of the country.

        Americans have had no problem with massive government indebtedness as long as they paid low taxes.

        So no… I don’t believe in the rational voter.

        • If by just calling your opponent infidel terrorist gets you 20% of the vote, well that is the most rational vote maximizer move i have ever heard of. It would be totally irrational not to use it.

          Believe me, if the GOP and the Democratic party had something like this, they would use it 24/7.

          So, yes it is completely rational to call the other “infidel terrorists” to get 20% of the vote.

        • Rational voters could be created but it should be obvious to any rational voter that it would be completely against the economic intrests of the rulers in any capitalist country to creat rational voters

      • “and that is democracy.”

        Sounds more like marketing, that manufactured-demand thing, or maybe like how things worked in Daley’s Chicago, Boss Tweed’s New York, maybe even Hussein’s Iraq. “Vote early, and vote often.” THAT is “democracy.” Maybe if there were an acceptable definition of “legitimacy” and how it’s earned and maintained, we might be headed somewhere…

        A Voter is just a mobile piece of meat that can be activated to do all kinds of stupid stuff that way too often operates as a challenge to the survival of himself, his family, even his tribe, and on the Really Big Scale, the species. Giving the gift of pseudo-legitimacy to, say, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, even The Only President We’ve Got…

        • To CDD: Being a rational actor is about maximizing the utility. That utility can be economic (as in voting your pocketbook) or it can be emotional/psychological (as in your PID or an issue you care about greatly).

          So, yes most voters at a certain level are rational. That’s where Frank Thomas went wrong in his analysis.

    • Cargi, Turkey produced more than 900,000 internally displaced persons between the eighties and nineties, according to a report by Hacettepe University. These were mostly Kurds fleeing state campaigns to evacuate villages in Eastern Turkey. The modern secular media in Turkey had nothing to say about that.
      Five years ago you could not talk about what happened to Armenians in 1915.
      Wikipedia lists 12 journalists killed in Turkey since 1995. Eight of them were killed before 2002, when the AKP came to power.

      • I don’t deny any of that. The army ruled the country indirectly in the 90s.

        By displacing a lot more than 900K (Some say 2-3 million) Kurds they created an underclass whose labor could be exploited.

        I also agree about the Armenian issue. All nations should talk about the crimes in their past.

        The problem is… The army’s collective dictatorship is now replaced by the dictatorship of AKP.

        In 2002 we were hopeful that EU talks would lead us to a move positive democratic outcome… Unfortunately Merkel and Sarkozy killed those dreams to a large extent.

        And I am sorry to say but I care more about what I can do and say in my country today than what happened to the Armenians 100 years ago. We cannot prefer to talk about the pains of the dead while the very much alive are suffering.

        AKP has used these little democratic improvements to please the Western media while they created a very hostile environment against doctors/lawyers/unions/women/the secular/the military/journalists… etc…

    • Cagri,

      The 6.5 average years of schooling sounds a lot like the United States in its early years.

      It was common during the late 1700s/early 1800s for candidates in the western states (what were then the western states) to send out their supporters with bottles of whiskey, to give people who promised to vote the right way a big slug.

      There is no way to get ready for democracy, except through trial and error.

    • I think we should not forget that in the 1970s there were brutal military dictatorships in place in every country in South America, in Greece, Spain and Portugal, in South Korea and Indonesia. There were Communist dictatorships opposing them in the Cold War from Berlin to Vladivostok. There were civilian tyrants like Marcos in the Philippines and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Gang of Four was rampaging in China, and Indonesia’s army, having overseen one genocide, was moving on to others.

      By that standard, we have made staggering progress. The problem is what has happened in the developed nations, as wealth polarization and their inability to control former colonial zones has created a climate of paranoia among elites and those bigots they choose as their henchmen.

      Turkey, South Korea, and Brazil took a long time to emerge from military rule; the military often retains a veto in such places after giving up the hassle of direct rule. It is not surprising that this causes resentment and paranoia. But it would have been a terrible tragedy for South Korea and Brazil to slide back into military rule because citizens of opposing factions couldn’t even work out their differences with each other in a democratic framework. Those democracies seem safe now, no matter what happens in the streets.

  5. Just watched General Al-Sissi’s speech, and it reminded of another famous speech–not the wording, but the overall tone and the overall message. Do you remember Gaddafi’s speech of “Street by street. House by house”? It has been dubbed the “Zanga Zanga, Dar Dar” speech. Well, it is almost the same message that Al-Sissi delivered in his speech today. It is very irresponsible of him to deliver such an irresponsible and dangerous speech at a very critical and extremely dangerous times. If he was looking for more blood, well this speech would do it.

    Gaddafi inflamed the passions of Libyans with that speech (on both sides of the civil strife), Al-Sissi just did the same.

    Moreover, if Egypt is led by a civilian government (as they are arguing) why is Al-Sissi giving speeches, setting policies, and urging Egyptians to fight other Egyptians? Isn’t that the role of the so-called civilian president that he nominated?

  6. An eloquent defense of the military coup in Egypt. The article could have been written by an official commentator on Radio Cairo these days. It is amazing how similar all such official communiques are be they from Hosni Mubarak’s, Qaddafi’s, Bashar al Asad’s or Saddam Hussain’s of the world. Any one of them would be proud of the following formulation:

    >>Folks, the way you keep the Egyptian state secular is put it in the constitution and then make changing the constitution very, very hard. You don’t ban parties or party platforms, you create the framework within which they have to act.

    This is what they did while they were in power !!!!

  7. What Dr. Cole seem sometimes to forget is that it is not enough to draft a secular clause–i.e., the equivalent of Establishment clause–in the Constitution, it is also important for that constitution to be ratified.

    As things stand, i don’t think there is enough vote out there to ratify such a constitution with such a clause. Check the Pew Center Research Poll on this specific question in Egypt. There is overwhelming support for Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution–i.e., the article about the Shari’a as the basis of the law.

    We need to get back to reality here. Politics is about marshaling resources and applying them to get something done. It is not about dreaming and wishing for things.

    • Yes politics is about marshalling resources and applying to get something done. Dreaming and wisshing for something is the first step. Sadly the irrational masses often do not have the intelligence to know what is in their short term intrests and what is in their long term intrest. But if they could understand the difference between long term nd short term they would often be stuck in a dilema.
      Dictatorship, Oiligarcy, Democracy, and Anarchy all usually suck. Sadly none of them have to suck. The key is skillful leadership, as opposed to skillfully exploitive leadership.
      A balance of power between various institutions seems to be important in achieving the correct kind of leadership. But that is food for another feast.
      We in America take it for granted that representitive democracy produces the best results over the long term. I take issue with that. When I was in an American public school we were taught to question authority to be able to avoid the mistakes of the Germans several decades earlier.
      Unfortunately the word authortiy was not very well defined.
      I think that for most students authority was understood to mean Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. I think that authority needs to be redefined as everything that you ever thought that you knew (know).

      • I think you are using the concept of rational and irrational very wrongly.

        Being a rational actor is not about being mentally sane or intelligence. Actually, it has nothing to do with that at all. It is all about maximizing your utility (whatever that utility might be).

        So you argue that those who vote a certain way are wrong and idiots, well that assumes that you know the right way of voting. That’s paternalism run amock.

  8. You say it is paternalism run amok. That is exactly what so many children scream at their parents when the parents try to reform destructive behavior. What evidence do you have that the voters even understand what maximizing their utility would look like?
    Then even if a voter could understand what maximizing his/her utility would look like what evidence do you have that he her could apply the proper strategies to achieve the goal?
    These are problems before we even get to the problem of political systems getting hijacked by the rich to preform for the rich.

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