Yemeni security forces killed 24 protesters on Sunday as the conflict between partisans of wounded president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his detractors escalated. Anti-Saleh protesters in Sanaa are taking their demonstrations to new neighborhoods, and are meeting sniper fire from security forces. On Saturday, thousands of protesters headed toward the university campus in the capital.
Demonstrations continued this weekend in Syria, despite security forces raids on neighborhoods of Deraa and Hama. Four persons injured by security forces died on Sunday. The opposition selected a council on Saturday, though it is not the only claimant to being an alternative voice to that of the regime. Syrian protesters continued to reject the idea of foreign military intervention in their country.
Five Tunisians trying to commit suicide were rescued by crowds, after the former tried and failed to get jobs as teachers in the rural southwest. Tunisia’s revolution, which inspired the rest of the Arab Spring, began with the suicide of Mohammad BuAzizi, who was reduced to selling vegetables from a carte despite being educated. The turmoil in Tunisia has hurt the country’s economy, ironically if very many of last winter’s protesters were complaining about lack of jobs. Tourism is way off, and even factory production is down.
Abd al-Rahman Shalqam, former foreign minister of Libya, has revealed in an interview with al-Hayat in Arabic that Muammar Qaddafi was central to propping up the corrupt and dictatorial regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Many analysts of authoritarianism in the Arab world have pointed to French, British and American support for dictatorial regimes, but the way in which Qaddafi deployed his oil billions in the Middle East and Africa to undermine democracy and reinforce dictatorship and corruption is a key part of the puzzle.
Shalqam said that the security cooperation (i.e. help with domestic surveillance of the STASI sort) was so complete between Libya and Tunisia that Qaddafi had actually given Ben Ali a monthly stipend.
Likewise, he said that Umar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian military intelligence, was “Libya’s man in Egypt.” Under Suleiman, the secret police in Egypt developed extensive surveillance and used unsavory techniques of interrogation redolent of those deployed by Qaddafi himself.
Shalqam confirmed that in 1993 Egyptian secret police abducted Libyan dissident and former foreign minister Mansour al-Kikhia, then sent him to Libya where he was executed by Qaddafi.
Qaddafi, finding himself blocked in attempts to dominate the Arab world (in part by the wealthier and more prestigious Saudis), at one point declared that he was “an unparalleled man” and would become “the king of kings of Africa.” His son Saif al-Islam is said to have teared up in joy at the announcement. (For Qaddafi’s disastrous impact on Africa see this posting).
Qaddafi’s strong support for the Ben Ali police state in Tunisia is well known. When Ben Ali fell, Qaddafi regretted it and said “there is none better to govern Tunisia than Ben Ali.” This sentiment derived from Ben Ali’s being on his payroll and doing his bidding, not from the milk of human kindness. Ben Ali’s use of torture against dissidents, like that of Qaddafi, is well documented. All the Tunisians I talked to in my recent trip to that country, whether from the left or the right, supported the attempt to get rid of Qaddafi, though they were insistent that there should be no Western troops or bases in that country. They confirmed to me that were Qaddafi to manage to remain in power, they feared he would use his oil billions to undermine the embryonic Tunisian experiment in democracy. The revelation that Ben Ali was actually on a retainer from Qaddafi will only reinforce these attitudes.
How important Qaddafi was to Hosni Mubarak’s police state needs to be further investigated. But there is growing evidence of his baleful influence. How the left-leaning post-colonial regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt deteriorated into seedy police states with vast domestic spying apparatuses, secret prisons, torture, press censorship and ultimately crony capitalist cartels is yet to be completely understood, but the evolution of Muammar Qaddafi into king of kings of Africa is an important part of this story.
The United States today is celebrating the declaration of independence issued by a murky group of dissidents in 1776, who, had they been rounded up by the duly constituted authorities, would have been summarily and ignominiously hanged. Their brief against their government — a government that claimed an ancient heritage and right to govern them — was that it acted high-handedly and tyrannically, with no regard to public welfare. They charged their king with warring on their economic welfare and of depriving residents of the Thirteen Colonies of basic rights expected by all subjects of the crown, including the right to be represented on bodies that set taxes.
The long series of complaints lodged against the British monarchy by the American revolutionaries bears a striking resemblance to the charges laid against Arab rulers by their people since last December. Interfering with their economic well-being, ruling arbitrarily, undermining any independence of the judiciary, rendering “the military independent of and superior to civil power,” and preventing them from being properly represented in the legislatures have all been complaints launched via Twitter and Facebook and satellite television interviews, rather, as in the 18th century, via printed broadsides, handwritten letters, and word of mouth.
It is little wonder, then, that Americans have been overwhelmingly positive about these developments in the Arab world, with 76% of them sure that the changes will be positive in the long run, and, bless their hearts, 56% in favor of democratization even if it ended up hurting us interests. (Americans are not in the main Realists, it seems). Despite the best efforts of Fox Cable News and the Israel lobbies, only 15% think the revolts are mainly about Muslim fundamentalists trying to grab power. (What is true is that in the second phase of the revolutions, when they go to parliamentary elections, fundamentalist parties will contest vigorously for seats and some may do relatively well).
So here are some recent developments in the Arab revolutions of 2011, to consider on this day, which in 1776 in many ways kicked off a new way of organizing peoples and governments. Ironically, the abuses of executive power against which the Founding generation of Americans mobilized, and against which Arab youth have risen up, are now all too frequently exhibited by the Washington elite of both parties. This comment is not made in the way of encouraging cynicism, but simply to signal to all concerned that achieving democracy is not a single time-bound set of activities; it has to be a permanent way of life among free peoples, to which substantial numbers of citizens have to give of their time, effort and wealth. Otherwise, the executive in a country over time has enormous resources with which to infringe against basic rights of citizens, as do major corporations who have an unfair advantage in dominating the political process. Checks and balances within the government, such as the separation of powers, only go so far. Ultimately, it is people power that keeps tyranny at bay, which is why security forces and officials are so afraid of it.
Thousands of Moroccans protested on Sunday that the reforms proposed in last week’s referendum (which passed by 98%) did not go far enough. King Muhammad VI will now accept that the prime minister must be from the party with the largest number of seats in parliament, and the PM will have the right to nominate cabinet members. These changes move away from absolute monarchy, but are clearly highly limited in scope, and the king retains most of the power in the state, and remains head of the judiciary, thus forestalling its independence.
The opposition Wifaq Party is entering talks on national reconciliation with the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain. The protest movement in Bahrain was brutally crushed by Sunni hard liners in Manama, but clearly a government cannot hope to govern successfully merely by repression of the majority. Despite great mistrust among the contending parties, some compromises would be relatively easy to achieve if there were the will, and that Wifaq is not so alienated as to simply refuse to negotiate is a good sign (it would have every right to be). Likewise, that more level heads in the monarchy are still seeking such talks is promising, since hard liners such as the prime minister (the king’s uncle) want to deal with the movement simply by having people arrested and, let us say, put under severe pressure. Some of the reforms just voted in in Morocco might help in Bahrain.
The community group Lam Echaml this weekend forcefully condemned the stone-throwing on Sunday June 26 by Muslim fundamentalists outside a cinema showing an avant-garde film, “Neither God nor Master,” about secularism in Tunisia. Secular-minded and progressive Tunisians are fearful of the growth of the fundamentalist al-Nahda (Ennahda) Party, ably described here by Mark Lynch, and many entertain dark suspicions that incidents like the attack at the cinema are actually planned by cells within the latter party (something al-Nahda denies). The al-Nahda response to the cinema incident was to deplore violence but also to deplore “provocation,” in response to which secular Tunisians insisted that art is generally provocation and one must have the right to provoke in a democracy. There is no evidence that, for all its smooth self-presentation, al-Nahda leaders actually understand or approve of this principle. Still, that secularists are insistent on making the public case for freedom of expression in uncertain times is a tribute to the spirit of the Tunisian revolution, the one that started all the others.
Yemeni rebels say that they will unilaterally form a transitional governing council, as talks drag on about the formation of a new government. Ali Abdullah Saleh is too ill and disfigured to ever return as president, but refuses to admit, and his highly placed family members and partisans in Sanaa are encouraging his delusions.
Unrest continued Sunday at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands gathered Friday to deplore police brutality. But worryingly, this weekend there was violence between the people in the square themselves. Some suggest that street vendors and others in the informal economy who depend on tourism in the square attacked the tents of long-term protesters for interfering with their livelihoods. Egypt’s tourism is way down this summer, even though security is probably still better there than in many major American cities.
Turkey has just recognized the Transitional Governing Council in Benghazi as the Libyan government and offered it $200 million in aid. Note that the United States still has not recognized this body, and it has not turned over to it the billions that it has frozen of Libyan assets. In contrast, France recognized the young United States and contributed $1 bn. livres tournois to the cause of its independence, intervening navally just as NATO is intervening from the air in Libya. While US contributions to the UN/ NATO effort in Libya are much greater than news reports typically suggest, Washington should go ahead and recognize the TNC and should do much more for the Free Libya population economically. Eastern Libya is suffering badly, as is Misrata and the Western Mountains, and the message must be reinforced that fighting for liberty from a brutal dictator will bring the good will and help of free peoples in the outside world.
The Arab peoples deserve their Fourth of July, and deserve the support of the American people in their quest to end decades of rule by strong men, secret police, and mafia-like cartels run by ruling families and their cronies, which have severely limited the human and economic growth of this key region in which 320 million people live.
Euronews reports that al-Asad tried to distinguish between potential dialogue partners among his critics and those who, he said, were mere vandals and saboteurs. Al-Asad maintains that parliamentary elections will be held later this summer, but his family has presided over a one-party state since 1970 and many question how genuine his commitment to reform is.
President Abdullah Gul of Turkey slammed al-Asad for not opening his country faster to multi-party elections, showing Ankara’s increasing frustration with the Syrian leadership. Turkey under the Justice and Development Party had reached out to al-Asad and repaired relations with Damascus, allowing a big expansion in bilateral trade. But al-Asad is, from Turkey’s point of view, squandering all that progress and threatening Turkey’s economy by being so repressive and provoking a months-long uprising, as well as chasing dissidents over the border into Turkey, where they are an economic and political liability for the latter.
Deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidin Bin Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi have been sentenced by a Tunisian court to 35 years in prison for embezzlement. While it is clear that the president and the first lady were extremely corrupt while in office, it seems to me that the main purpose of the sentence is to ensure that Bin Ali does not attempt to return to the country, since he now would be arrested at the airport. Bin Ali gave a cock-and-bull interview maintaining that he only flew to Jidda last January to deliver his wife there, and had planned on returning but the plane left without him. Dear Zine: the country left without you.
This Observer editorial argues that the widespread availability of digital video recording devices, including those in smart phones, has allowed people abused by their governments to create an evidence trail that can then be deployed at forums like the International Criminal Court. Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Libya are singled out as governments that have committed war crimes against their people and where these have been recorded and disseminated by video.
Addendum: Egypt’s prestigious al-Azhar Seminary, a leading center of Sunni Muslim authority in the world, has issued a document calling for a civil, democratic state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion or gender and is dedicated to the welfare of the people. The document also seeks more independence of al-Azhar from the state, asking that its rector be elected rather than appointed by the president of the country. This development in the thinking of the al-Azhar clerics is momentous in my view, not only for al-Azhar and Egypt but also for Sunni Islam in general. Al-Azhar does have to overcome suspicion in some quarters that it is an Establishment institution too close to the old Mubarak regime. But many ordinary Sunnis do value its fatwas.
The 8 wealthiest industrial countries, meeting at the G-8, urged that the world give Egypt, Tunisia and liberated Libya (‘emerging democracies in the Arab world’) some $40 billion in aid. The sum will make headlines but there is less to it than meets the eye.
The G8 is only ponying up $10 billion itself, and that is only in the form of relatively vague promises of a sort that have often not been completely followed through on in the past. It is urging that the Gulf oil states to give $10 billion, though some of them, like Saudi Arabia, were not actually very happy about Hosni Mubarak being overthrown and it is not clear that they will want to help grassroots democratization succeed. That $10 bn. may or may not come through, and if it did it might have strings attached that would actually be undemocratic. Saudi Arabia is very afraid of the outbreak of press freedom in Egypt, which could end its stranglehold over Arabophone journalism and open its authoritarian system to critique. What price would it extract from Cairo for its billions in aid?
Then the G8 is urging that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank provide another $20 bn., but that aid is likely to be in the form of loans.
But Egypt alone is carrying $80 billion in debt, and its debt servicing costs have risen because its credit rating has been downgraded in the wake of the political crisis.
Tunisia is even worse off, with 1/8 of Egypt’s population but a debt of $50 billion racked up by the Zine El Abidine kleptocracy. Before the crisis, Tunisia had been looking to borrow nearly $3 billion this year just to pay the interest on the old debt and cover budget shortfalls (caused by the ruling class stealing the country blind).
So the G8′s idea of getting these countries further in debt, and making vague promises on direct aid, isn’t probably actually very helpful.
There is, moreover, a contrast to be made here in what the wealthy countries seem to most value when it comes to their financial dealings with places like Egypt. In 1990-1991, Egypt was $50 billion in debt, and then its government joined in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces occupying Kuwait. After the Gulf War, $25 billion of the debt was forgiven, i.e., half, which uplifted the Egyptian economy in the early to mid 1990s. Pakistan also got very heavy debt forgiveness after 2001 for turning on the Taliban and allying with the United States and NATO.
If joining a war is worth half a country’s debt, then moving from a military dictatorship to trying to become a democratic country should be worth just as much. That would mean Egypt alone should be getting $40 bn. in debt forgiveness. After all, the debt was incurred by a military dictatorship that did not consult the people, and which was in the hip pocket of the Western Powers. Why should poor Egyptians in Ismailiya and Asyut be held hostage for repayment?
And, the $25 bn. in debt forgiveness for Egypt of the early 1990s was a sure thing, not vague promises and ‘calls’ on other countries and institutions of the sort that just came out of the G8.
It is also true that in the 1990s, US debt was relatively small and that Bill Clinton even had a budget surplus late in his term, whereas G.W. Bush and his Republican majority doubled the national debt and created long term structural deficit with his tax cuts and wars. (Obama’s deficits have been one-off and won’t affect things going forward.). But all that is not the fault of the Tunisian and Egyptian people, though it underlines how much Bush weakened America.
Egypt’s transition to democracy is going to be rocky enough without the albatross of Hosni Mubarak’s debts hanging around its neck. The world community needs to be far more generous and pro-active if Egyptians are going to feel rewarded rather than punished for their remarkable achievement in moving toward popular sovereignty and a rule of law. The same holds true for Tunisia. But Egypt is a fourth of the Arab world and an opinion leader, and its success really would resonate widely in the Arab world and Africa.
The G8 gesture was good as a confidence-building measure, but it is piddling in relationship to the real needs and is short-sighted in its picayune dimensions. It also signals that war-fighting is more valued than democracy-making.
One good thing about the likely victory of the Free Libya forces is that that country’s oil wealth ($26 bn a year) could be used in part to support the new democracies in its neighborhood, while Qaddafi would have tried to undermine them.
Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery
“A Moment of Opportunity”
U.S. Department of State
May 19, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery –
I want to thank Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark – one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.
The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith.
Today, I would like to talk about this change – the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security. Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader – Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.
Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaint, this young man who had never been particularly active in politics went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.
The story of this Revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.
This lack of self determination – the chance to make of your life what you will – has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.
In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”
In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”
In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”
Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.
Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age – a time of 24 hour news cycles, and constant communication – people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days, and bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we have seen, calls for change may give way to fierce contests for power.
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.