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Monday, February 21, 2011

Another week begins.

What now?

Quite a weekend for me.  Yesterday my page had some 400 hits in a 24-hour period, a pretty dramatic record, considering I was averaging about a hundred hits a day previous to that (though I’ve only been doing this seriously for less than a month).

I’m pretty happy with my coverage of the situation with Libya, given that much of what I was reporting on the 19th is finally making it into the mainstream news.  This raises a point (or two) I’d like to clarify for the sake of my reading audience - I am not a journalist.  In this current situation that is something of an advantage.  The situation on the ground is so chaotic that by the time a single event can be confirmed and verified, the larger situation has already changed dramatically.  In Libya, the news that was three hours old might as well have been news that was a day old, and news that was a day old was still being vetted for accuracy by the international news agencies.

For me to rely on insider commentary, twitter feeds, uploaded YouTube videos, and hastily posted messages and audio files on poorly put together webpages is rather dangerous.

Hyperbole, confusion, mistranslation, panic, misinformation, wishful thinking, personal bias, and deliberate propaganda are all factors that must be taken into consideration when relaying information from the sources.  I am, essentially, flying by the seat of my pants and hoping that my own knowledge and critical thinking capabilities are sufficient to the task at hand.  Only time will tell how right or wrong I’ve been in my assessments (although frankly, I think I’ve been doing pretty well all things considered).

Fortunately, no one’s making policy decisions based on my read on the Middle East (I hope).

Frankly, I don’t think anybody’s making any policy decisions at all at the moment.  Right now, everyone’s in tactical mode rather than strategic mode, and that’s not likely to change until the situation becomes a wee bit less volatile.

Anyway, thanks for reading. By the way, while on the topic, I know that many of you are educated and intelligent people - if you read  something here that strikes you as being  questionable, or flat out wrong, please, please, please feel free to address i.  I’d rather be publicly corrected than publicly wrong.

Now, on to the material at hand:

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Libya - I really think this is the end of the line for the Libyan regime.  As I mentioned yesterday, al-arrabiyya reported that Qaddafi had left the country for South America (Brazil or Venezuela). Unfortunately, no one else is supporting it, so I can't vouch for its accuracy at this point.

One of Qaddafi's sons, Seif al-Islam, gave an unintentionally hilarious off-the-cuff speech last night (I hope it was off-the-cuff, if those were his prepared remarks then that boy needs help). Several translations can be found, and I highly recommend that you read it in full, it’s full of crazy little gems like,

We all now have arms. At this time drunks are driving tanks in central Benghazi. So we all now have weapons. The powers who want to destroy Libya have weapons. There will be a war & no future. All the firms will leave, we have 500 housing units being built, they won't be completed. Remember my words. 200 billion dollars of projects are now underway, they won't be finished.

or this one:

The army said that some protesters were drunk, others were on hallucinogens or drugs. The army has to defend its weapons. And the people were angry. So there were deaths, but in the end Libyans were killed.
There are thee parts behind this
1- Political Activists whom we agree with,
2- What happened in Bayda are Islamic elements. Bayda is my town, my mother is from there. People called me. They stole weapons and killed soldiers. They want to establish an Islamic Emirate in Bayda. Some people took drugs & were used by these protesters.
3. The third part are these children who took the drugs and were used. These are facts like it or not.

Ayyad elBaghdadi did a real-time translation of the speech on the fly via twitter and at the end of it said, “I feel stupider just for having written it down”.

The level of denial is a full magnitude higher than Mubarak’s was during his final speech, but as funny as the whole thing may be for us abroad, the situation on the ground for Libyans is incredibly grim. As I said before, it is impossible to overstate the bravery of the Libyan people at this point. After the past three days of conflict, everyone in the streets knows that death is a strong likelihood.


Although the general populace, large numbers of the tribally affiliated population, and many members of both the army and the police have joined with the uprising, the Libyan government has three pillars of support:
The Elite military, led by one of Qaddafi’s sons, and heavily staffed with regimes loyalists, these people are not merely fighting at the whim of the leadership, they are likely fighting for their own lives, and as such will not be pulling punches when it comes to combat (this is no longer crowd control, this Is all-out combat)

The Libyan Air Force, which draws heavily from the Qadhadfa (Qaddafi’s own tribe) for its pilots and officers. Family loyalty is essential here as are old tribal rivalries. Unsurprisingly, nepotistic favoritism has been very good to Qaddafi’s tribe, but very problematic for inter-tribal relations. (Short article on this here)    Additionally, it’s a lot easier to kill people from a fighter plane than it is with a machine gun. Bombing of major urban areas has already been reported, and I just don’t know how long it will take to get the situation under control.  If the ground crews to stop supporting sorties, then it could end sooner than later, but I honestly have absolutely no idea what the likelihood of something like that is.

The mercenary forces who have been confirmed in Benghazi and several other places are the third pillar of regime support, and the most unpredictable.  They are reportedly from places like Chad, Bangladesh and (?  Niger), and they don’t stand a chance of survival if captured.  Many of the worst atrocities witnessed in Benghazi and other eastern cities have been attributed to the mercenaries, and they have shown their contempt for the general populace through their ruthless violence.  At this point they probably just want to escape with their lives, and there’s a good chance that many of them won’t.  Well armed, terrified man with few options are capable of truly horrific things.

That being said, I don’t think the government’s resistance is sustainable.  The only question is how much damage will they unleash on the populace before they are taken down? (Check out Dirk Vanderwall’s analysis here) Plus his book is right there on the sidebar ---->

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Yemen - I’m sorry to say I haven’t had a lot of time to follow Yemen, given the situation in Libya, but a few things should be mentioned: The president has refused to step down.  The violence has been steadily escalating, though not nearly to the same degree as Libya. Good ongoing analysis here.

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Iran - Hard to say.  The green movement Is no longer concerned with the president, at this point they’ve set their sights on being supreme leader himself, Kahmeini.  This implies a restructuring of the entire Iranian political system, rather than just political reform, and the chances for success are anyone’s guess at this point.

The protests have continued steadily, with building intensity, but nothing on the scale that we witnessed back in 2009.  Thousands in the streets at times, but not hundreds of thousands.

An interesting rumor has been circulating, saying that Hezbollah members have been supporting the Iranian regime during crackdowns on protesters.  Similar rumors were circulating in 2009, but were never confirmed.  It should be mentioned here that such a thing is possible but, it is also quite possible that the rumor is a piece of targeted propaganda intended to drive a wedge between the green movement protesters and the regime’s support for militant Shiite activity abroad.

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This is particularly interesting because in Bahrain the government is accusing Hezbollah of giving support to the protesters in the Pearl roundabout (now being called martyr's roundabout). While on that topic, the situation in Bahrain doesn’t seem to be moving towards resolution yet.  The protesters continue to occupy the roundabout, and the government continues to make unsuccessful overtures towards resolution along with halfhearted moves towards another round of crackdowns.  The acts of violence of the past few days seem to have quieted down, but there are still reports of a strong Saudi presence on the ground.

Nicholas Kristoff has a good piece up in the NYT today

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Saudi Arabia has been awfully quiet lately.  As Napoleon said, never interrupt your enemy when he is busy making a mistake.  Libya and Egypt and Iran have all been longtime competitors and/or opponents of the Saudi regime, and the Saudi royal family is doubtless watching these events extremely closely as they unfold.  Although their position is not nearly as precarious as that of the various North African regimes, the events in Bahrain must be incredibly worrying to them.  Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have very close relationships, and although Saudi Arabia does not share Bahrain’s large disenfranchised Shiite population, they do, nonetheless, have a significant concentration of Shiites in their Eastern oil producing territories.  Actions by the Bahraini government against its Shi’a population, particularly with the support of the Saudi military, could create serious tensions within Saudi Arabia’s small but defiant Shiite population.

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One last point (I may post another update later today) Morocco was the scene of several major protests yesterday - some good recap and analysis can be found here.  The vast majority of these protests were peaceful, with the exception of one in Tangier that degenerated into rioting and looting.  I suspect that if the Moroccan government is able to mitigate the response in show clear signs of attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs of their citizens, they’ll be okay.  If, however, the violence expands and the government is overly heavy-handed in its response, then I’ll have to move Morocco from the “safe” column and into the “regimes in play” column.

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Many more links and much more extensive information on the greater middle east can be found in today's post at the Arabist: http://www.arabist.net/blog/2011/2/21/sehams-regional-links-2011-02-21.html

2 comments:

  1. Isaac, this blog has been my first go-to when I'm looking for information about the events in the Middle East. Your standard is high and your analysis is bold. I thank and commend you for all your efforts.

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  2. I second Steve's voice. This is how I end my day, reading your synthesis and wit. Congrats on all the hits, by the way.

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