Posted on 09/15/2012 by Juan Cole
1. Tourism in Egypt and Tunisia, the economies of which heavily depend on it, is likely to take a nosedive this fall. It is a shame, because Tunisia had been hoping for a near return to 2010 levels of 7 million visitors this year. And Egypt’s tourism was up 16% over the previous year, though still down by 300,000 visitors a month from summer of 2010.
2. Likewise, foreign investment will be discouraged. Ironically, the embassy riots broke out while a delegation of 100 US business executives was in Cairo looking for investment opportunities. Some of those planning to stay beyond Tuesday are said to have abruptly left the country and canny observers spoke of the good will generated during the visit being squandered.
3. Decline of tourism and of foreign investment implies even higher unemployment in countries already plagued by lack of jobs.
4. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim fundamentalist-dominated governments may well get blamed for failing to maintain public order. In opinion polling, security and fear of crime are major concerns on the part of ordinary Egyptians.
5. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Nahdah in Tunisia, fundamentalist parties that did well in the first post-revolution elections, face new parliamentary elections in the near future. If they are in bad odor with the public for failure to provide public order, and for implicitly helping the Salafi rioters, and for failure to improve the economy, they could be punished at the polls. It would be ironic if the impassioned reaction of fundamentalists to a phantom Islamophobic film so turned off the public as to lead to the Muslim religious parties being turned out of office in the next elections.
6. As a result of these considerations, the fundamentalists will blame outside agents provocateurs for the violence, and Israel for provoking it, trying to convince the public that Muslim fundamentalists had nothing to do with the issue.
7. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others almost certainly spells an end to any American interest in intervening in Syria. The longevity of Bashar al-Assad’s secular Baathist regime, now attempting to crush rebels that include a small number of radical Muslim vigilantes, may have just been lengthened. Meanwhile, the Muslim world will be unembarrassed that they got so upset about a Youtube trailer but didn’t seem to care if hundreds of Syrians were killed, arrested and/or tortured every day.
8. The attack on the embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, by some 4,000 angry protesters, will likely draw the US even more into internal Yemeni disputes, since Washington will want to try to destroy the fundamentalist movements there. US drone strikes on radical Muslim movements of an al-Qaeda sort have become commonplace in Yemen. However, no one in the United States will know that Yemen ever existed or that the embassy was attacked, or that the US is pursuing a policy of drone strikes in that country.
9. Assuming there aren’t any diplomats taken hostage, President Barack Obama will look presidential in dealing with these deaths in Benghazi and his electoral chances may improve.
10. Mitt Romney will go on switching back and forth among his various opinions of the Islamophobic film and of President Obama’s reaction to the Libyan consulate attack.
85 Share 186 Google +1 7 StumbleUpon 0 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel/ Palestine, Libya, Syria, Uncategorized | Comments
Posted on 09/13/2012 by Juan Cole
The late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury authored a short story about time travelers. They were careful, when they went back to the Jurassic, not to change anything, but one of them stepped on a butterfly. When they got back to the present, the world was slightly different.
When scientists studying complexity put forward the idea that small initial events could have large effects in non-linear, dynamic systems like the weather, they chose the term ‘butterfly effect.” One of the images students of weather instanced was that a butterfly flapping its wings might set off minor turbulence that ultimately turned into a hurricane. (In the older model of Newtonian physics, small events have small effects and large events have large effects, so you wouldn’t expect a minor action to produce big changes).
So the Associated Press did a careful investigation of the ‘Sam Bacile’ who supposedly directed the hate film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims.’ And AP found that probably he does not exist, but is a persona used by a convicted Coptic Egyptian fraudster, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula.
But the story gets more complex. Nakoula had Coptic and evangelical associates in the shooting of the film, including Steve Klein, a former Marine and current extremist Christian who has helped train militiamen in California churches and has led “protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.” My guess is that most of the Egyptian Copts involved are converts to American-style fundamentalism.
The Egyptian Coptic church has roundly condemned the hateful film they made smearing the Prophet Muhammad.
Anyway, the bigotry of the edited film, directed at Muslims, is part of a movement of religious prejudice that also targets . . . Mormons.
Mitt Romney may want to rethink his ‘visceral’ reaction to the US embassy in Cairo’s tweet condemning the group’s hate speech.
Then it turns out that the film was shot in such a way that there was originally no mention of the Prophet Muhammad in the script, and the cast had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and then the name of Muhammad was clumsily dubbed into the final edit.
So, the film was from the beginning a fraud. It was directed by a fraud. It was promoted by a militia trainer. And Nakoula marketed it fraudulently as the work of a fictitious Israeli-American Jewish real estate agent, ‘Sam Bacile,’ and falsely said it had been funded by “a hundred Jewish donors.”
The group behind the film, in other words, managed to evoke all the classic themes of anti-Semitism as a way of disguising the Coptic and evangelical network out of which the ‘film’ came. When they weren’t busy picketing Mormons and defaming Muslims they were trying to get Jews killed for their own smears of Islam!
Of course, given the strident hatred of Muslims promoted by a handful of Jewish American extremists such as Pamela Geller, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and others, in which they gleefully join with white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists, it was only a matter of time before their partners in hate turned on them and used them.
The bad, dubbed ‘film’ only had one theater showing in some dowdy place in LA. Then in July the group had the trailer for it dubbed into Arabic with subtitles as well, and put it on Youtube, where it was found by strident Egyptian Muslim fundamentalist Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, who had it shown on al-Nas television and caused the sensation that led to Tuesday’s demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi. As I argued yesterday, the vigilante extremists or ‘jihadis’ have been left on the garbage pile of history by the democratic elections in Egypt and Libya, and are whipping up the issue of this film in a desperate attempt to remain relevant.
Aware of the building sensation about the film, an employee of the US embassy in Cairo condemned it as hate speech before the rally began outside its premises.
In other words, this is a non-film and a non-story, a fraud, promoted by the worst people in each culture.
In Cairo, the rally allegedly got out of hand because the Ultras or soccer ruffians joined in, and they were probably the ones who tore down the American flag and ran up a black Muslim-fundamentalist one. Ultras are not fundamentalists but they are mischievous and resent authority, so a superpower that backs the army and police they hate might be a target of their wrath. There may have also been a handful of al-Qaeda supporters there, not surprising on the anniversary of September 11. The crowd at the American embassy was tiny by Egyptian protest standards.
In Benghazi, Hadeel Al Shalchi got the story. She talked to Libyan special forces members who explained that there were three stages to the events there. First, there was a demonstration. Then when the police and consulate guards tried to curb it, the demonstrators got angry and some of them went for guns and a rocket propelled grenade, so that the consulate was set on fire and looted. It was at that second stage that US ambassador Chris Stevens and another diplomat were killed (Stevens inhaled too much smoke in the fire and the other man was shot). Stevens’ death is a great tragedy and irony, since he was liaison to the transitional national council during the Libyan revolution and many Libyans lionize him. Why in the world he was in an insecure minor consulate in a provincial city on September 11 is a mystery to me.
Then 37 embassy personnel escaped to a rural safe house. The Libyan special forces commander charged with evacuating them to Tripoli at first was stymied by not having enough vehicles for so many people. Then the safe house came under fairly precise mortar fire from members of an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Benghazi, which must have been surveilling consular personnel. Finally, the Libyan government forces got the Americans to the airport and they flew back to the capital of Tripoli.
It should be remembered that Libyan forces fought and risked their lives to protect Americans. In opinion polling in Eastern Libya, the United States has a 60% favorability rating, while the Salafis or hard line Muslims stand at only 28% favorable.
It was while all that was going on in Cairo and Benghazi that Mitt Romney took it into his head to condemn Barack Obama for the tweet issued by the Cairo embassy before the demonstration. He alleged that Obama had *reacted* to the embassy attacks by showing some sympathy for the attackers. This allegation is untrue and absurd, but Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan went on repeating it all day Wednesday.
Romney was caught on camera walking away from that shameful performance with a shark-like grin on his face. Since he was talking about matters of life and death, the expression was inappropriate. But a darker theory is that he was grinning about having stuck it to Obama.
Romney’s politicization of September 11 and of the horrible events in Benghazi was poorly received among opinion leaders, including prominent Republicans, and some observers suggest that this miscalculation may have been a decisive nail in the coffin of his sputtering campaign.
Meanwhile, the Libyan government apologized for and vehemently condemned the attack on the consulate and the killing of its personnel. And, on Wednesday Libyans staged pro-American demonstrations in several cities.
In Egypt, in contrast, small demonstrations were held again in front of the US embassy, until police pushed the activists back. When, on Thursday morning, protesters set two cars afire with Molotov cocktails, police arrested 12 of them. The police have the embassy surrounded and have closed the roads leading to it in Garden City.
Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, fell short of strongly condemning the Cairo and Benghazi attacks. Late on Wednesday the Muslim Brotherhood finally retweeted comments of one of its other leaders, Khairat al-Shater, in condemnation of the attacks. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood is sponsoring rallies protesting the film on Friday, a ‘day of rage.’ Morsi is no doubt worried that religious and political currents to his right will outflank him on the issue of the blasphemous film and its American provenance. But Morsi has a Ph.D. from the US and surely knows that the US government cannot suppress films, and it is shameful that he did not condemn forthrightly the killing of Ambassador Stevens and the others.
In Tunisia, Salafis rallied on Wednesday in front of the US embassy, but were fairly quickly dispersed by police deploying tear gas. Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki denounced the killing of Stevens and the others as an “act of terrorism.”
So the Butterfly Effect set off by a low-budget bad propaganda film gotten up by two-bit frauds and Christian supremacists, and then promoted by two-bit Egyptian and Libyan fundamentalists, has provoked some squalls and cost the lives of four good men.
The storm provoked by this butterfly has revealed character on an international scale. The steely determination of an Obama to achieve justice, the embarrassing grandstanding of a Romney, the destructive hatred of a handful of extremists in Cairo and Benghazi, and the decency and warmth toward the US of the Libyan crowds, all were thrown into stark relief by the beating of the butterfly’s wings.
In the end, the violence and extremism of the hardliners on both sides is a phantasm of the past, not a harbinger of the future. The wave of democratic politics sweeping the region has left the haters behind, reducing them to desperate and senseless acts of violence that will gain them no good will, no popularity, no political credibility.
A little-noted major event of Wednesday was the democratic selection of a new prime minister in Libya for the first time in the country’s history. Mustafa Abushagur defeated the Muslim Brotherhood candidate handily. Abushagur for a long time taught college in the US, at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Libyans again showed themselves nationalist and non-fundamentalist. This remarkable achievement, and what it portends for the shape of Libyan politics, will be drowned out by the atrocity in Benghazi, but it is the development that is likely to be marked by future historians as a turning point in Libya and in the Middle East.
19 Share 1418 Google +1 79 StumbleUpon 57 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in Egypt, Libya | Comments
Posted on 09/12/2012 by Juan Cole
Predictably, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to make political hay of the tiny demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi by Muslim militants. The Benghazi mob turned violent in clashes with police and the consulate ended up being burned and
an embassy staffer is said to have been the US ambassador and three staffers were killed.
Romney seized on the frantic tweets of the Cairo embassy issued *before the attacks*, which condemned the sleazy Youtube videos by American Islamophobes that had provoked the ire of the crowds, as evidence that the Obama administration was siding with the attacking mobs. First of all, really? Romney is trying to get elected on the back of a dead US diplomat? Second of all, really? He thinks the State Department thought the attack on themselves was justified? Third of all, really? Romney is selective. When it comes to Christianity, Romney decries a ‘war on religion.’ But apparently he thinks there *should* be a war on Islamic religion. (Except that Romney himself condemned Terry Jones’s Qur’an burning a couple of years ago.) Romney’s intervention (he is just a civilian at the moment) in American foreign policy is unwise and risky, not to mention distasteful.
The victory in the Libyan elections of nationalist rather than fundamentalist forces, and the rise to power in Egypt of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood has marginalized the militant strain of Muslim activism, known coloquially as ‘jihadis’ because of their emphasis on vigilante violence. The vigilante fundamentalists were small but dangerous groups in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, and both governments reacted by attacking them and arbitrarily imprisoning them.
The vigilante fundamentalists typically reject elections and democracy, as inauthentic Western imports, and they are headline whores, plotting out attention-grabbing mob actions. These jihadis are tiny groups in Egypt and Libya, though sometimes well-armed and well-trained.
You could make an analogy to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, which just has perhaps 5,000 active members. But people like Wade Michael Page, who had applied for Klan membership, can make a media splash by simply shooting down people at e.g. a Sikh Temple.
One way the fundamentalist vigilantes can hope to combat their marginalization and political irrelevance in the wake of the Arab Spring is to manufacture a controversy that forces people to side with them. I suspect that is what they were doing in Egypt and Libya, in front of the US embassy in Cairo and at the rump consulate in Benghazi.
That the jihadis could not get bigger crowds up for their demonstrations suggests that they are seen as crackpots by their neighbors. In Libya, their actions may be a catalyst to the new prime minister, to be named today, to spearhead a concerted effort to build new police and army forces on a faster timetable than had the transitional national council. Secular and nationalist Libyans have already announced a peaceful demonstration against the violence at Martyrs’ Square in Benghazi for Wednesday afternoon. I doubt the incidents will have long-term political significance. The Neocons will say they are symptoms of the so-called ‘Islamic winter’ after the Arab Spring, but that is just a way of making sure Western youth don’t identify (as they did during Tahrir) with Arab youth, marking them as a fundamentalist and threatening Other. There isn’t any ‘Islamic winter’ in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt just barely squeaked by to win the presidency against a secular candidate– hardly a landslide.
The pretext for the demonstrations/ attacks was a youtube film by Muslim-hater Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American ‘produced’ by provocateur Rev. Terry Jones, he of the Qur’an-burning fame. Things were made worse that two expatriate Coptic Christians are said to have been involved in the film. [Subsequent reporting revealed that "Sam Bacile" is a fiction and probably a cover identity for a Coptic Christian activist]. About ten percent of Egyptians are Christians, and the Muslim militants sometimes attack them. The Israeli right wing and its American supporters have a vested interest in driving a wedge between Americans and the Muslim world, since Muslims on the whole stand against the Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank, the major project of the Israeli right wing. Good relations between the Muslim world and the United States might sway the latter to withdraw support for Israeli expansionism and aggression.
Although some of the Egyptian demonstrators may have, as Ashraf Khalil argues, sincerely thought that the films demeaning the Prophet Muhammad were being widely shown in American theaters on on television, I think the jihadis’ leadership cynically manufactured this ‘crisis’ in order to grab headlines and force the post-revolutionary governments to take a stand. If they stood with the Americans, they’d be guilty of blasphemy themselves. If they stood with the jihadis, they’d have surrendered some legitimacy to the latter. There is a third possibility, which is to deploy police or army against the vigilantes on grounds they had disturbed the peace, and simply declaring that the US embassy isn’t responsible for all the nonsense put up on Youtube.
In Egypt, the small crowd of 1500 just gathered outside the embassy walls (the Cairo embassy is a kind of fortress in the tony Garden City district). At one point they tore down an American flag flying outside the embassy grounds and ran up the black flag favored by militants. (Those black flags are freely sold in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and aren’t necessarily al-Qaeda flags. They just denote militancy and a desire for a fundamentalist government). Al-Masry al-Yawm has photos.
In Benghazi, the crowd of militants that gathered at the consulate may have turned violent in response to police or army intervention. The consulate was just a building in which the US set up during the Libyan Revolution, when Benghazi was the rebel capital, and which they kept going as a consulate after they reopened the US embassy in Tripoli. I met with a consulate official in early June there, and she wasn’t even sure the US would keep the consulate open. The small crowd in Benghazi turned violent, and at least one of its members had a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which he either loosed against the police and missed, hitting the consulate, or which he targeted the consulate with deliberately. (Hard to know which). The consulate caught fire and burned to the ground, and in the chaotic violence, the ambassador and the three staffers were killed. The killings were vehemently condemned by the Libyan government, which pledged to punish the perpetrators.
Libya had parliamentary elections in July, in which the Muslim fundamentalists did poorly, with nationalists winning out. Some 20 percent of those elected were women. A couple of neighborhoods in Benghazi are known for their strident fundamentalism, and jihadis did not allow a couple of polling stations in the city to open (though the vast majority of the city voted).
There is a small militant cell in Benghazi that has some RPGs and grenades. They have attacked the Red Cross offices, a convoy of the British consulate, and set off a pipe bomb in front of the US consulate last month. Most people in Benghazi are appalled by these extremists. The collapse of the authoritarian government of Muammar Qaddafi has left Libya without much in the way of professional police and army, both of which have to be rebuilt as institutions functioning in a democratic republic rather than as narrow instruments of oppression, control and torture.
What happened in Benghazi was the action of a tiny fringe, sort of like Ku Klux Klan violence in the US. It isn’t typical of the new Libya, and Benghazi is not a lawless or militia-ridden city. One of the narratives of what happened there, in fact, is that the police may have been *too* heavy-handed in an attempt to curb the militants’ demonstration, provoking the latter to bring out their one RPG launcher.
The crowds both in Egypt and Libya were tiny. Their militancy is not typical of Egypt or Libya today, both of which are struggling toward more democratic forms of governance. In Cairo, there may have been a failure of policing; police in Egypt feel unfairly demonized because they had been seen as bulwarks of the Mubarak regime, and they often decline to show up to their jobs as a result of this low morale. This police foot-dragging has allowed an increase in petty crime, though Cairo is still far safer than most Western cities.
The government of Egypt is still pretty powerful, and will likely act to curb the militants, as it did in the Sinai recently. A merely fundamentalist president, Muhammad Morsi, probably cannot allow this challenge from the militants to pass. Moreover, this kind of thing is bad for tourism, a major part of the Egyptian economy, which had just begun improving this year after the turmoil of 2011.
On the other hand, there could be more trouble. The Egyptian Actors Guild announced an emergency meeting to study how to respond to the film smearing the Prophet. It may be that this obscure Youtube video could be taken unduly seriously even by the Egyptian mainstream.
4 Share 150 Google +1 7 StumbleUpon 52 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in Egypt, Libya, Uncategorized | Comments
Posted on 09/08/2012 by Juan Cole
Alice Ross writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
President Bush and his CIA director Michael Hayden have each claimed that the US has in the past only used the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding on three prisoners.
This number, however, is being called into question by a Libyan dissident who has contradicted these claims with a detailed description of being waterboarded by US interrogators in a CIA ‘black site’ in Afghanistan.
Mohammed Shoroeiya told Human Rights Watch he was waterboarded numerous times during CIA interrogation in Afghanistan. He said he was strapped to a wooden board, ‘then they start with the water pouring… They start to pour water to the point where you feel like you are suffocating… they wouldn’t stop until they got some kind of answer from me.’
And there were more. Another Libyan has described being subjected to ‘a water suffocation practice similar to waterboarding’ at the hands of the CIA in Afghanistan.
These men are among 14 former Libyan dissidents interviewed by Human Rights Watch for a report, Delivered into Enemy Hands, outlining how the US and UK secret services arrested dissidents across the world and returned them to Libya, straight into the hands of Colonel Gaddafi. Many were mistreated both before and after their return to Libya.
One detainee, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, released information under CIA interrogation that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. He was later rendered to Libya, where he died in prison in 2009.
Related story: Protection from torture weakened under new plans
Five of the men were transferred to CIA black sites in Afghanistan for up to two years, where they report being held in windowless cells, beaten, chained in stress positions, deprived of food and kept awake for lengthy periods by rock music played at ear-splitting volumes. They were never charged with any crimes, and were eventually rendered to Libya. One of the men reports also being held at a CIA black site in Morocco.
The dissidents’ accounts are supported by documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch in the offices of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, during the fall of Tripoli last September, including faxes from the CIA and MI6 alerting the Libyans to particular arrests.
Ten of the fourteen cases took place within a year of the US and UK’s public reconciliation with Gaddafi. The renditions to Libya took place despite the regime’s reputation for torture and detention without trial. The documents show that in at least two cases the US sought diplomatic assurances that prisoners would not be tortured – but these were unenforceable, and were roundly ignored.
Two cases involved the UK security services working with the CIA to render dissidents to Libya: both were extensively reported when the documents were discovered last year. The two men who were rendered to Libya, Abdul Hakim Belhadj and Sami Mostafa al-Saadi, are now suing the British government.
Most of the men interviewed for the report were members of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist group formed in opposition to Gaddafi’s controversial and oppressive interpretations of Islam. Almost all had fled the country in the late 1980s and went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets while also gaining training for their own struggle.
Related story: Was Gaddafi ‘cyber-spying’ on opponents in the UK?
But as Human Rights Watch points out, after the September 11 attacks the US was ill-disposed to distinguish between Islamic militants waging war against the West and those fighting other causes. Many of the dissidents scattered, and were later arrested in countries including Hong Kong, Malaysia and Mali.
Like many other captives at the height of the ‘war on terror’, they were shuttled between countries across Asia and the Middle East and to Guantanamo Bay, often remaining in US custody for years.
Although parts of the report are familiar, the catalogue of cases detailed in the Human Rights Watch investigation provides a very detailed challenge to the US’s previous admissions about its use of torture and offers another piece in the murky puzzle of US-led international diplomacy following September 11.
Click here to read the Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands
Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
See also This report on use of diapering, slapping and insects.
0 Share 16 Google +1 2 StumbleUpon 1 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in Libya, Uncategorized | Comments Off
Posted on 08/16/2012 by Juan Cole
Husam Dughman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
The Arab Spring springs surprises
When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.
Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.
This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.
Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the merely authoritarian dictatorships–Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.
By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi.
Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”, France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States took seriously the Arab League’s pleadings for aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, preemptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less. That vanishing act, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.
Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This movement began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.
Nonetheless, the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.
The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.
Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.
About the author: Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal. They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them. Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.
Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.
Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad
0 Share 16 Google +1 0 StumbleUpon 0 Printer Friendly Send via email
is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers. To learn more visit his website
Posted in Libya, Syria, Uncategorized | Comment
Posted on 08/09/2012 by Juan Cole
The UN observer sent to commemorate the event said it all. The peaceful transfer of power from the National Transitional Council to the newly elected Libyan parliament “surprised the world.”.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the NTC during the transitional period, handed the baton to parliament, which was buzzing with deliberations about who the speaker of the house would be, and who the prime minister. Independent, nationalist, and Muslim fundamentalist candidates are all in consideration.
A controversy continued about the writing of a new national constitution. The NTC had attempted to ensure that the constituent assembly would be directly elected by the people, but many in parliament feel that that body should appoint the drafting committee. My suspicion is that the NTC moved to favor an elected body out of fear that parliament might be dominated by the Libyan version of the Muslim Brotherhood. But in fact the Justice and Construction Party did not do that well in the parliamentary elections and probably could not craft a theocratic charter, and so perhaps the method of choosing the constituent assembly is not so urgent.
Despite some continuing security problems (which are exaggerated by outsiders in my experience), Libyans were able to have free and fair elections, with only a tiny number of polling stations closed for security reasons. Women won some 20% of the seats, and an unveiled woman made some waves by making some remarks in parliament to mark the transition. An elected prime minister with the backing of the parliament will have a national authority that the NTC signally lacked, and should be able to move to rebuild the national army, the police, and to get the ministries operating. Libya has a significant income from its oil exports, now back up to pre-revolution levels, and so monetary resources are not the problem so much as managerial capacity to spend the money promptly and wisely. In general, Libya reminded me much more of Jordan than it did of a failed state like Yemen. (Of course, that it seems to me like Jordan, including with regard to the quality of the infrastructure, is a sad commentary on how Muammar Qaddafi pissed trillions of its income away down the toilet of African wars and other boondoggles, reducing the population to a third world existence when they could have had an advanced country).
As a historian, I can’t avoid taking this occasion as an opportunity to review some of the milestones in Libya’s modern history. I would say it began with the Spanish conquest of Tripoli in 1510.
Spanish Conquest of Tripoli from a painting in the Libyan National Museum
After a brief period of rule by pirates 1538-1551, Tripoli fell to Sulayman the Magnificent’s Ottoman army in 1551.
The Ottomans ruled loosely, through vassals, though they did garrison the coastal cities, and their officers threw up a vassal state in the 18th century under the Karamanlis. The young United States briefly blockaded Tripoli and took Derna in the early 19th century, over the issue of piracy, though the Libyans captured the USS Philadelphia and kept it until 1804. (There is a restaurant named “The Philadelphia” celebrating this incident in Tripoli today).
In the nineteenth century, the reformist and sometimes militant Sanusi Sufi order of Muslim mystics gained power under light Ottoman rule in the Benghazi region.
In 1911, Italy invaded and colonized Libya, keeping it until the Allies expelled Mussolini’s fascist troops in 1943. During the Italian period, Libyans mounted repeated challenges to European rule, especially the rebellion of Omar Mukhtar, whose image was a favorite of grafitti painters during the 2011 revolution against Qaddafi, who was seen as a new Mussolini.
After a brief period of British administration, in 1949 the United Nations began overseeing a transition to Libyan independence. In 1951 the Sanusi leader Idris was installed as king. Idris was a somewhat reluctant monarch and not a very good leader, and while a parliament was elected, parties were discouraged and it was more of an advisory council of notables. Idris’s Libya looked more like the Gulf monarchies than like the rest of North Africa; it had British and an American base and began developing a petroleum industry. It was seen by the West as an ally in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.
King Idris was overthrown in a military coup in 1969 by a group of young officers led by Muammar Qaddafi, then a charismatic and popular young Arab nationalist who admired Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Qaddafi gradually went insane, imposing on his long-suffering people a staccato series of bewildering policy changes that kept the country’s institutions in constant flux and destroyed its economy and civil society, while dragging the country into a series of imperial military adventures in Africa.
Tripoli grafitti from 2011: Muammar Qaddafi (Gaddafi) as rat. Photo by Juan Cole, May, 2012.
Qaddafi was overthrown by a popular uprising a little less than a year ago, and in the interim Libya was guided by an unelected National Transitional Council, which was frequently criticized for not being decisive or vigorously addressing the country’s postrevolutionary problems.
Regime change came in Libyan history by foreign conquest (Spain, the Ottomans, Italy, and the British), by military coup (Qaddafi and his Janissary predecessors of the 18th century), or by revolution (2011, though Idris’s Sanusis allied with the British in World War II to overthrow the Italians, so there was a popular revolutionary element to that transition).
But Mustafa Abdel Jalil was not overthrown, nor has Libya been invaded by a foreign power with troops on the ground. Mustafa Abdel Jalil stood at a podium, and tendered his resignation in favor of the elected representatives of the people.
All the naysayers and skeptics about Libya should give it a rest today, and congratulate our Libyan brothers and sisters on a magnificent historical achievement, and wish them well. Achieving a republic, as Ben Franklin implied, is easier than keeping a democracy. Libyans have made a good first step toward the latter.
0 Share 32 Google +1 0 StumbleUpon 1 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in Libya, Uncategorized | Comments
Posted on 07/27/2012 by Juan Cole
Martyr’s Square, Tripoli, Libya on a Friday afternoon.
This is the area of the former “Green Square” where Qaddafi gave his hours-long crackpot speeches. It now has a carnival atmosphere on the weekends. Families are out, into the evening, and according to the informal interviews I did, most seem quite happy with the new political situation.
Photography by Juan Cole, late May, 2012
0 Share 3 Google +1 1 StumbleUpon 1 Printer Friendly Send via email
Posted in art and photography, Libya, Uncategorized | Comments