Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why exactly are we involved in Libya?

It’s pretty simple, really – we’re there because it’s easy.

Easy is relative, of course, but Libya as a target for intervention has a lot going for it. A comically distinct leader with a history of deliberate regional destabilization and brutality, a wave of democracy sweeping across its North African neighbors, a defiant but outgunned domestic uprising, an eager coalition of international partners, a clear humanitarian disaster in the making, the unprecedented approval of the Arab League to take action against one of their own members, and the fact that whole business can be conducted via NATO’s 60-year-old military alliance using our allies’ airbases in the Mediterranean.

It’s just too easy.

We don’t even need to put troops on the ground, just fighter jets, gunships, cruise missiles, and drones.

We get to use up ordnance that was reaching its expiration date, give our pilots a little bit of combat practice, and generally make ourselves feel better about the Middle East and our role in it.

Jon Stewart explained this last night in terms of a ledger sheet
and, grim as it may sound, there is an undeniable truth to the reality of the situation. The benefits of our actions must be weighed against their costs. It’s ugly, but it’s true.

Are we doing the right thing in Libya? I believe the answer to be yes.
Why then, are we not doing the right thing in places like Cote d’Ivoire, Bahrain or Syria?

Because it’s a whole lot more difficult in those places.

Syria and Bahrain are tangled messes that require a delicate negotiation of allies, potential allies, neighbors, repercussions, and regional instability that could severely impact our interests in the area.

Whereas Bahrain and Syria have close ties to other Middle East countries, Libya has steadily angered and alienated everyone else in the Arab-speaking world. (This is one of the main reasons he has given so much money to African regimes and the African Union - Qaddafi has spent billions on dictators across Africa in order to ensure their support for his various machinations. )

Right now Cote d’Ivoire is in the early stages of a civil war. How many of their neighboring countries are clamoring for our help to mitigate the thousands of fleeing refugees? What has the AU done to stop that conflict (or any other, for that matter)? Almost nothing – instead they rail against intervention. Gbagbo, the former president of Cote d’Ivoire, refuses to leave office despite having lost the election. Instead he is unleashing his military on the supporters of his opponent Outtara. Simultaneously he has vigorously supported Gaddafi and denounced any and all western intervention. (Interesting sidenote – in addition to his links to Gaddafi, Gbagbo has strong ties to some big name conservative Evangelical Christian movers and shakers in the US).

Furthermore, the scale of brutality in Bahrain and Syria hasn’t yet begun to approach what we’ve seen in Libya (though Syria should be watched closely – this Friday after evening prayers things will almost certainly get interesting). Getting NATO or Arab league approval for an action in Syria isn’t going to happen, and unilateral American intervention in the middle east went out with GWB.

In the case of Bahrain we have to weigh our actions within the context of our own involvement (the US 5th Fleet is docked in Bahrain) and the proximity of Iran, the entanglement of Saudi Arabia, and the fact that we’d be hard-pressed to achieve anything truly constructive by getting involved. It’s also not near Europe, and it’ll have to get a lot worse before Europeans would even think of getting involved. (And really, why would Europeans get involved? It doesn’t really impact them in the way that Libya does.)

So. American intervention in Libya. Easy.

Everywhere else. Messy and problematic.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yemen, Egypt and this blog - three short updates.

Three quick updates to bring to your attention:

Yemen: Yesterday I briefly mentioned that President Saleh offered to step down by the end of the year and hand has authority over to a worthy successor, while expressing doubts as to his sincerity. As it turns out, he has withdrawn the offer, which leads me to suspect that he was never all that sincere to begin with.


Egypt: Egyptian presidential elections have been pushed back to 2012. Although this sounds ominous on the face of it, the reasons for postponement are quite encouraging – given the lively debate over the constitutional amendments, the military Council decided that the constitutional revisions themselves needed more time and needed more involvement by a wider spectrum of people (this was one of the primary complaints about the way in which the constitutional amendments were undertaken) they have brought in several additional voices to participate in further revisions. (Parliamentary elections will still be held this year)

An article on the issue can be found here, a Google translated version is here (though it is a bit garbled, the essential point are fairly clear).

Postponing the presidential election gives the fledgling reform movements more time to solidify their base and establish their platforms. In the meantime, some major divisions are coming to the surface in the Muslim brotherhood and among some of the more conservative religious elements. If incidents like this persist, the fundamentalists will rapidly lose their public support.


The third item relates to this blog - Last night I noticed that today marks two months since I started writing here. Overall I’d say it’s going pretty well – I’m averaging about a hundred visits a day, mostly from the US but also from all over the rest of the world. We’ll have to wait and see if my new Twitter account generates additional hits. Most importantly for me, it has forced me into the habit of writing on a daily basis, something that I’ve tried to do in the past but had serious problems with until now.

In the interests of ongoing improvement, I’d love to get your feedback on the blog – is there anything you’d like more of? Is there an area that I’m not covering fully? Do you have questions about my methodology or my sources? Let me know so that I can address those areas.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A whole mess of updates from all over!

Friday is always a big day in the Middle East.  Just about every single major protest or rally that has taken place from Morocco to Iran has reached its peak after Friday evening prayers.  Yesterday was no exception, and today seems like a good day to sort out some of the events from the past few days and try and make sense of where things are in the Middle East.

The first point to mention is my recent entry into the world of Twitter. I’ve been following multiple Twitter feeds for quite some time (beginning back in 2009 with the Iranian post-election protests), but I’ve been leery of going any deeper into that chaotic yammering mass.  My time at the nonprofit technology conference last week however convinced me that it was no longer something I could reasonably avoid.

My Twitter name is ixakRubicon, but if you’re not on Twitter you can also see my “tweets” on the right column feed of this blog. I’ll be mostly using the feed to share links and “re tweet” notable tweets from other people that I’m following.  I promise, I won’t be using it to talk about my new haircut (which is spiffy), what I ate for breakfast (egg sandwich), or what the guy next to me on the train yesterday smelled like (urine).

If you are among the twitterati, please follow me. It gives my life purpose and meaning.

Now on to the things that matter:


Libya - rebels are making progress once more.  Pro-Qadhafi forces have retreated from the besieged cities of Misrata and Ajdabiya.  There have also been reports of tanks and armored trucks being abandoned by the pro-Qadhafi forces because of fuel and ammunition shortages (remember what I said the other day about supply chains?).

White House comments on America's involvement in the NFZ+ can be found here if you missed them, with a more extensive speech coming on Monday. Steve Negus has some relevant comments over at - "Consensus vs Clarity"

The US role in the operation has been downgraded, with NATO taking the leadership role and the majority of the sorties being flown by French and British planes as well as several miscellaneous European countries and Canada.  Fighter planes from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also participating, though it should be pointed out that Qatar is one of the only countries in the ME that hasn’t had major protests (it is also the home of Al Jazeera), and the UAE may have committed planes in order to buy themselves some slack for their participation in the Bahrain crackdown. Nonethless, the participation in this campaign by Arab governments should not be taken lightly.


The United Arab Emirates have also made another interesting move with some ambiguous geopolitical ramifications. They have joined the African Union as officially recognized observers.  This is notable for a few reasons, most immediately the contrast between their active participation in airstrikes on Libya and the denunciation of those attacks by the African Union. Their respective diferences over Libya, this certainly indicates a heightened degree of interest in Africa by the UAE, presumably for commercial reasons, but potentially for other reasons as well.


In Yemen,  talks of a potential  power transfer are under way, possibly over the next few days.

Frankly, this may be little more than a stalling tactic on the part of the current president - power would most likely be transferred into the hands of one of his supporters.  Despite the fact that nothing really seems to be happening beyond talking, it’s still too early to write off the power transfer idea. The fact that the people of Yemen have been able to push Saleh this far means that they can probably push further.


On the topic of elections, Egypt’s Wafd party is showing its true colors, stating that they are opposed to any international election monitoring in the fall (Google translate version here). Reaction to the statement has yet to be seen on a wide scale, but initial reactions have been (predictably) outrage and anger by the youth who participated on the protest movement.
Another interesting event took place in Egypt as well.  Two of the men responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat were released from jail a few days ago. This is part of a very complex power play by the military that I’m still trying to decode. I’ll try to keep you apprised of the situation as clarity comes.


Some interesting power struggles going on in Gaza as well, as Hamas tries to rein in the violent actions of Islamic Jihad.

In Jordan there have been some protests calling for a transition to a constitutional monarchy, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will gain traction. There have also been robust counter-protests - The King of Jordan still enjoys strong support from certain sections of the country, and some angry rhetoric has been flying back and forth over the issue. A heartfelt and melancholy account of a March24 protest can be found here: "The Quick Death Of Shabab March 24 And What It Means For Jordan" I HIGHLY reccommend it. The author really cuts to the heart of the issue in Jordan, and why reform of the type that we are seeing elsewhere may be a long time coming in Jordan.


The situation in Syria keeps getting more and more serious (or should I say Syrias?). Protesters burnt down a Baath party headquarters today and the protests continue to escalate in response to the governments violent attempts to suppress them.
An interesting consequence of the current situation in Syria is that Hezbollah has positioned itself very squarely on the side of Assad, a strategic decision that will probably come back to bite them in the ass later on.  The Alawite sect of Islam that Assad and his core supporters belong to is viewed with some suspicion by many of the more conventional Sunni Arabs of Syria.  The government’s close ties to the Shiites of Hezbollah and to the Iranian government have give the unhappy parts of the population ammunition for accusations of borderline heresy.


On the topic of Iran, an additional point to mention – the US government is considering dropping Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from the list of international terrorist organizations, a move that could have a serious negative impact on the homegrown Iranian green movement.  Excellent article describing the situation over at

There is also some positive State Department news - they have developed a nifty piece of software called the “Panic Protester Button”, a phone app that can be activated if a protester is about to be arrested. If the “panic” button is pressed the phone immediately erases all saved contact information from the phone and sends an emergency alert to other activists. This useful little piece of software shows an encouraging degree of innovation and adaptability on the part of our own State Department, (though an independently developed third-party version probably has a better chance of widespread adoption in places where the US government is viewed with almost as much suspicion as the local government.


One last thing to mention: SudanProtests against Omar al-Bashir are still trying to take off. I’ll keep you posted on those.


Well, that’s all for now, thanks for tuning in, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Israel: winning battles, losing the war.

Spring is here!

As the old marching cadence goes, "what makes the grass grow?  Blood.  Blood.  Blood." 

Or, alternately, we can always hum few bars from Ween’s classic tune, "push the little daisies."

Revolutions are ugly things.  And revolutions happen because ugly things have been happening.

(Note, some of the links on this page will take you to videos and photographs of unpleasant things – consider yourself warned)

I'm sorry I haven't been updating every day, but with my limited time I often find myself having to choose between keeping up on things and writing about things.  As good as it feels to update my blog daily, there is also a value to me keeping abreast of the things I am presuming to write about.

So...A speedy Middle East overview:

At this point there are four main hotspots: Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria.

Algeria is still teetering on the brink, the events in Iraq are relatively indistinguishable from their state before the Arab Spring (I'm sorry to be so dismissive, but Iraq's problems are of a very different stripe than the rest of the Arab world).

Oman, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia have all experienced protests, but not to the degree that their neighbors have.

Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait are all fairly quiet right now (one of the advantages of being small and rich). 

Egypt and Tunisia are pushing towards a post-autocratic future as best they can with varying degrees of success.

Iran and Lebanon have their own sort of equilibrium – both of them are seething under the surface, but not in any sort of fashion that is easy to explain to an unfamiliar observer. 

So I guess that's about where things stand right now.

Have I forgotten anything?

Oh.  Yeah.

Israel and Palestine. 

The Siamese twin arch-enemies.  Let's begin there, shall we?

As the protests and revolutions have spread throughout the middle east, Israel has been somewhat left out, which is just as well for them, given the turmoil that their own political situation is undergoing – splits in the dominant political party, controversies over military appointees, and the recent rape conviction of former president Moshe Katsav.

The most visible effects of the Arab spring in Israel have come in the form of a recent surge in mortar and grad rocket attacks on Israeli towns near the gaza border, the horrific murder of the Foegel family in the west bank settlement of Itamar, a bomb going off in Jerusalem, and Israel's military and political reactions to all of those events.

The thing is, these events aren’t actually expressions of the Arab Spring - they are instead desperate actions by groups who stand to lose influence and power in the event of a real Palestinian unity movement.  As I’ve stated before, these incidents are intended to goad Israel into a disproportionate response in order to generate support for the various militant Islamist organizations operating in Gaza. To say that they are the work of Hamas is not really accurate, but Hamas certainly stands to benefit from anything that draws attention away from themselves and catalyzes the public mood against Israel.

The degree to which Hamas fears a genuine Palestinian unity movement can be seen in the ferocity with which they lashed out against the rally in Gaza city last week – their power is slipping and they know it.

Anyway, a Palestinian unity movement would be disastrous for both Hamas and Fateh (And probably for the Israeli government as well).  So instead we get what we have seen over the past few days: a resumption of aggressive actions against Israel, and unflinching retaliation on the part of the Israeli military.  This actually creates an interesting opportunity for Israel's military industrial complex - the Iron Dome.

This is the next-generation of antimissile defense.  Radar guided antimissile missile launcher that detects rockets and shoots them out of the sky with faster rockets.

Israel is hoping to market these to other militaries, and the situation presents them with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the units as "field-tested".  The IDF has stated that they will be moving one of the units into place over the next few days, so I guess that's something we can all look forward to watching.

Here’s The problem: with the implementation of the Iron Dome Israel may have a new weapon in their national defense arsenal, but the Palestinian people also have a new tool, the same one that has been used in Syria, Bahrain and Libya to powerful effect - the ubiquitous camera.

Watch this video and think about its significance.

In the same way that the events of three days ago in the Syrian town of Daraa were being viewed around the world within a matter of minutes, and the way that the brutality of Libyan protesters shot to pieces by antiaircraft guns was immediately displayed for the world to see (I'm not going to give you a link - the pictures are horrific), the consequences of each and every one of Israel's actions will be looking out of computer monitors and smart phone screens across the Middle East and around the world.

When "Cast Lead" went into action in 2008, twitter did not exist, camera phones were still something of a novelty, and Facebook was still largely the domain of college students.

In 2009, when Neda, a young Iranian girl on her way to a piano lesson in Tehran was struck by a stray police bullet during the post-election protests she was dead in less than five minutes.  As bystanders tried to help her, one stood and filmed. The video of her death was online before her body was cold.

Over the past three days more than a dozen Palestinians have died in Israeli strikes - at least four of them children.  Many more will die in the days and weeks to come. Only some of them will have had any connection to the attacks on Israel, but all of their pictures will be posted on the internet.

Of course, Israel has cell phones with cameras as well, but pictures of a missile that didn't hit anything doesn't really have the same impact as shaky handheld footage of family members pulling their children out of the rubble of their parents’ houses.

Israel is making some very bad strategic decisions right now.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Self-immolation: Performing Protest with Fire -- Part 2: Viewing and Reviewing

Introduction: the Jan. 2011 regime change in Tunisia can be traced back to a single trigger event - On Dec 17th a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was publicly abused and humiliated by the police for selling  vegetables without a permit. Frustrated at the obstacles to simply making a living and the denial of basic human dignity he publicly set himself on fire. The jarring intensity of the act caught the attention of the Tunisian public, who strongly identified with the young man’s plight. Several more incidents of self immolation followed in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria and Egypt, and majorly contributed to the burst of protests and revolutions across North African and the Middle East. Self immolation as performed political protest has been a high profile practice since the early 1960’s, but until now has been largely unreported in the Arab world. 

Last year in Toronto I delivered a paper on self immolation. Given that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the catalyst for such unprecedented events in the middle east I wanted to cannibalize some of last year’s paper to shed a little light on this practice. This is part two of a three-part blog. Part one can be found here

Remembering the performance 

Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon.
-Emile Durkheim

What follows the performance of self immolation? No act takes place in a vacuum, and once performed, such an act cannot be undone. But the act does not simply end with the death of the actor; even the hottest fire leaves a residue. There is the body, of course which must be removed and disposed of.  As mentioned before, if the act is interrupted the self-immolator is likely to suffer for days before dying, and often times this grants additional time for the promulgation of the self-immolator’s message.  Most survivors the initial fire shown no remorse or regret for their actions, insisting that they would repeat the act despite the pain it caused them. Jan Palnic, a Czechoslovakian who survived for almost a week before succumbing to his injuries, did not regret his own actions, but discouraged other Czechoslovakian's from following suit, on the grounds that only one person needed to suffer as horribly as he had.

Because of the ideologically charged nature of the act, self-immolators almost always leave a written record of why they undertook such an extreme action. Tich Quang Duc left an explicitly worded note explaining and justifying his actions.  He also left behind a nearly mythic relic: his heart.  After his self immolation, his charred body was taken away for cremation, but according to all accounts, the cremation failed to consume his heart.  Instead the organ survived the fire, was placed in a crystal goblet and retained by the monastery as a relic of the event and as a symbol of Tich Quang Duc’s standing as a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has deferred his own transcendence for the sake of others.  The automobile that dropped him off at the intersection on the morning of June 11 is also preserved in his memory, with a copy of Malcolm Brown’s iconic photo affixed to the dashboard.  In the picture, the car itself can be seen parked behind the burning monk moments before his death. Indexically, the car and the photo reference each other and they both reference Tich Quong Duc’s self immolation.

Similar (though somewhat subordinate) reverence is shown towards all of the other Vietnamese monks who self immolated, whether in response to the Diem regime, the conflict between North and South Vietnam, or the American involvement. Memorials are maintained by their monasteries and by the Vietnamese government.  Additionally, the Vietnamese government and Tich Quang Duc’s monastery also memorialize the Americans who self immolated in solidarity with the monks and the Vietnamese people. Their actions are accepted at face value, and deemed worthy of gratitude and appreciation by the Vietnamese people.

This remembrance of the dead self immolators is far from common, however. In Europe there are a few memorials to the Czechoslovakian self immolators, who are also revered as national heroes.  Similarly, in Poland a monument has been erected in honor of Polish self immolator Ryszard Siwiec.  In America and most other locations there are no national monuments.  Any commemoration that is done is done by private citizens, usually family or friends. Given the absence of public monuments in the US, the primary way in which self immolation is remembered or referenced is through its depiction in various media.

Replaying and referencing the performance
One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.
-Kurt Vonnegut

Most American news agencies avoid showing overly graphic footage of human death on US television, particularly violent human death.  As such, self immolation is not exactly fodder for the evening news, although mention of its occurrence will usually appear in print media. During the run-up to the US occupation of Iraq, three people committed suicide or self immolation in protest. Their actions received slight mention, but very little attention in the national news at the time.

Until the advent of the Internet, the only readily available footage of self immolation available in the US was found on “Faces of Death”, a notorious video compilation of archival and historical films of actual humans dying in a multitude of ways. This panoply of horrific and gruesome footage featured a few films of self immolation devoid of ideological context amidst dozens of other examples of human death. The internet has changed this.  Now, In addition to an abundance of articles and online discussions on the issue, the Internet provides a wealth of video footage as well.  A search for “self immolation” on returns hundreds of videos and picture slideshows of actual self immolations, including two films of Tich Quang Duc's self immolation, and other immolations from Sri Lanka, Canada, Korea, and Eastern Europe.  Some of the videos are from films shot almost 40 years ago, and some of them are only a few months old, shot on cheap digital video devices or even cell phones. With the trend towards the ubiquity of security cameras and handheld video cameras integrated into cell phones, the likelihood is that video examples of self immolation will become much more common in the future.

The memory of Tich Quang Duc was most famously referenced in 1992, when the antiestablishment hard rock/funk/rap band known as Rage Against the Machine used Brown's photo of Tich Quong Duc as the cover of their debut album. The album, a self titled politically charged anti-colonialist rant from beginning to end went platinum in a little over a year, and continued to sell at high volume for several years to follow.  The cover was the stark black-and-white image of Tich Quang Duc on fire, marked only with the typewritten eponymous band name/album title. The power of Brown’s iconic photograph is inarguable - Robert Kennedy referred to the image as “the most powerful image of the decade.” Communications scholar Michelle Murray did a visual analysis of this photograph and reached many of the conclusions that I have already mentioned 

Another elaborate instance of creative semiotic indexicality is found in the 2001 movie "Waking Life", a well-received independent art film.  The movie is a meditation on awareness, death and dreaming that is presented in a distinctive format known as “rotoscoping” – a technique where a layer of animation is laid overtop of the original footage of the actors, adding a dreamlike quality to the film. Towards the end of the movie the central character is listening to a man with a gas can talk about the nature of self destruction, chaos and tragedy.  The man concludes his monologue by sitting cross-legged on the ground and dousing himself with the contents of the gas can. His final words are, “I feel that the time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes. Let my own lack of voice be heard.” At that point he sets himself on fire and the animated flames engulf him as he sits silently.  After a brief period, his flaming body collapses to one side, and the movie continues on to the next scene.

These few examples are hardly indicative of a clear trend. Replaying and referencing self immolation in media or through media is seldom practiced, but it is even less common in a real-life setting. To view the act on a screen is to be separated by a degree of mediation, facilitated by the willing suspension of disbelief, while the actions of the self immolator are much stronger when experienced directly - more compelling recreations of the performance do exist..

Reenacting the performance 

The first notable reenactment took place a few years after Tich Quang Duc’s original performance. In 1967 the 17-year-old son of an American embassy worker in Vietnam doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, imitating the performances of self immolation that seemed to be everywhere at the time. The rapid response of passersby saved his life, and during his convalescence he was asked about his reasons for such extreme behavior.  His response was simply, "I wanted to know how it felt." This seems to be part of a larger trend in American media, the intentional or inadvertent separation of the act of self immolation from its accompanying ideology.

On January 23, 2001, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, several self immolations took place in Tiananmen Square. Contradictory government reports placed the number of self immolators between five and seven, and fatalities at either one or two.  A week after the incident, heavily edited footage of two of the immolation incidents was released by the government, along with interviews with two bandaged individuals who were described as survivors of the incident.  One of the victims, according to government news reports, was a 12-year-old girl who had been pushed into the act by her mother.  All of the survivors vigorously blamed and denounced Falun Gong, the religious organization to which they had allegedly previously belonged.  All of the persons who had performed the act were described as victims of manipulation, brainwashing, and antigovernment propaganda.  The subsequent public shock over the event, was tremendous, and led to a dramatic shift of public sympathy away from the Falun Gong.

The Falun Gong themselves denied all responsibility for the immolation, and protested that such acts were theologically forbidden by their religion.  They also challenged the veracity of the publicly broadcasted footage of the immolations, and called for investigation. Danny Schecter, a CNN reporter who had been present at the first of the January 23 self-immolations also took issue with the broadcast footage.  He and a CNN cameraman observed the very beginning of the event, but they were quickly detained by the police, relieved of their movie footage from the event, and escorted from the scene.  Subsequent investigation raised doubts as to the actual identity of the person's described by the Chinese government, as well as the legitimacy of their connections to the Falun gong.  Even the official video itself, when closely examined reveals inconsistencies, most notably the disconcerting sight of a man in a government trench coat viciously clubbing one of the immolators in the face as she burns. Most of the official Chinese government claims regarding the nature of the event were discredited in the award-winning documentary "False Fire", but the Chinese government insists that their official account is an accurate one. Additionally, the Chinese government continues to insist that self immolation is selfish, dangerous, synonymous with terrorism, and the result of manipulation of the naïve by the unscrupulous cult members of the Falun Gong. This is similar to a narrative that was used by Indian media opposing a wave of self-immolations by low-caste Dalits protesting academic and employment discrimination in 1990 and 1991. The acts were dismissed or denigrated in a number of editorials:

“The unfortunate students suffered from a variety of psychological disorders ranging from alienation from their parents to acute depression and sense of insecurity caused by social and economic environs”

“…a general sense of fear manipulated among impressionable minds by extraneous forces which could have led to the suicide bids."

“…the extreme cynical step of encouraging self-immolation of gullible students as a weapon of political coercion,”

These denunciations are not intended to discourage the actions of the self-immolators themselves, but rather reduce the impact and perception of these performances by broader portions of the Indian and Chinese community. Because self-immolation itself is so difficult to prevent, the strategy of threatened institutions is to control the discourse over the issue while simultaneously disparaging its practice as barbaric and inhumane. Obviously, the response to performances of self immolation are likely to vary from country to country, regional variants has led to counteracting strategies by the groups that are being protested against.  This may be through actions in the press, or it may take a more direct form of physical measures on the part of the government.

After the first instance of self immolation in 1963, the Vietnamese police adopted a simpler strategy; simply club anyone trying to photograph a self immolation event. In South Korea, due to a spate of self-immolations in the past, the police have been specially trained to handle the situation/spectacle, and are quite successful at anticipating and preventing successful self immolations.  In response, however, more recent South Korean self-immolators have revised their performance style accordingly.  In order to prevent an unwarranted police interruption of a self immolation, the recent trend among self immolators in Korea is now to perform the act in a highly visible but inaccessible location like a tower of a bridge span, and throw one's burning self off of the staging location.

Recently, during a self immolation in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet a Chinese police officer took dramatic measures, and fatally shot the self immolating protester before the burning body was extinguished. The Chinese government claims that the police officer acted in this fashion because there was no other way for him to prevent the spread of fire except through severe self injury.  This may be indicative of a new strategy on the part of the Chinese government.  If the Chinese government can establish a narrative that defines self-immolation as a public danger to others, they will be able to act against it with extreme prejudice and force. Concurrent with this approach, there have also been reports of Chinese police beating undesirable political activists severely, setting their unconscious bodies on fire, and then attributing their deaths to self-immolation.

The most recent trend in self immolation is a heretofore unknown unobserved co-implementation of self immolation and suicide bombing by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Previously, it was generally accepted, that cultures and movements that used self immolation as a form of protest did so as an alternative to the use of violence towards their opponents, and that organizations and movements willing to utilize the suicide bombing is a tactic would have little or no use or need for self immolation with the two practices acting as opposite poles on a spectrum of violent fiery self-inflicted death. This new trend contradicts the conventional wisdom on self immolation, and is too novel to be fully addressed yet.  This is significant because the Tamil tigers were the group to actively deploy suicide bombers against civilian targets.  It is not clear from my research whether this-self immolation is a tactic utilized by more moderate elements within the Tamil independence movement, or if its utility has just recently been seized upon by the same ideological organizers responsible for the extremist actions of the Tamil Tigers.

The recent incidents of self immolation in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt have brought the practice to the forefront of the world’s attention, particularly due to their location in the Islamic world. In part three of this piece I will address this new phenomenon of Muslim self-immolation…stay tuned.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

President Obama’s Nowruz Message | The White House

President Obama’s Nowruz Message | The White House

What's the current situation in Libya right now?

This is an old post - click here for the most recent update on Libya.

You should also be checking

The specificities of the coalition campaign are probably well beyond the knowledge of anybody except for those military and intelligence personnel directly involved (and presumably some key government officials as well). Suffice it to say dozens of tanks and armored vehicles have been destroyed on the ground, and the vast majority of Qaddafi’s anti-air capacities have been eliminated. US Air Force C-130s are now broadcasting to the Libyan people, and the No-Fly zone is now in effect from Tripoli to Benghazi.

It is worthwhile to point out that this is not simply a "no-fly zone". The wording of the UN resolution was to protect the safety of Libyan civilians, and although many members of the Arab League are balking at the scope of activity, what we're seeing is a full implementation that will probably come as close to implementation of ground forces without the actual implementation itself.

Many of the military officials involved have expressed minimal optimism regarding their expectations for this undertaking, emphasizing repeatedly that they will not be removing Qaddafi from power, they will simply be destroying as much as possible of his capacity to inflict harm on civilians.

Some of them have said that the result may simply be a stalemate on the ground, but don't believe that for a minute. These guys know exactly what's going on. Qaddafi's goose is cooked, but the actual work of removing him will be left to the Libyan people themselves.

Here's the thing, as I've been saying for the past week, the rebels are not as badly off as most people are assuming.

Qaddafi's forces have been hemorrhaging troops continuously for weeks. Entire battalions have defected, and are under the command of generals who were formerly loyal to Qaddafi. The discouraging events of the past week are not evidence of the Revolution's failure; they are the realities of war - specifically the realities of urban tank combat in North Africa. Patton said, "war is hell", but we in America haven’t had the opportunity to see the effects of large-scale ground combat since the first Gulf War (and war may be too strong of a word used to describe that conflict – it implies that there are actually two sides fighting).

Regardless, Qaddafi's field commanders (possibly one or two of his sons, probably with some direction from Qaddafi himself) committed to a campaign of speed and brutal force. It's sort of the equivalent of pulling your goalie in the last five minutes of a hockey or soccer game and putting an extra offensive player on the field in hopes of driving deep into the opponent’s territory and evening the score. Unsurprisingly, it's a very risky strategy. It has put his armor dangerously far from their supply lines, which are exposed and spread out over hundreds of kilometers. Tanks need a tremendous amount of fuel, and without infantry support they are susceptible to specific types of close range attacks. In urban environments, a handful of men with Molotov cocktails can cripple a tank if they are acting with little or no regard for their own safety or survival

Although it will take months, or even years to finally ascertain the correct sequence of events, my suspicion is that when Qaddafi's armor was moving into Benghazi they were entering a trap. Former Libyan soldiers (some say as many as 8000) were being held in reserve near Benghazi under the leadership of Libyan generals loyal to the uprising. The tanks that reached the city were rolling into the teeth of a resolute and ready resistance.

The French and American air strikes that took place yesterday and today were devastating, and they certainly saved civilian lives, but I suspect that even without them the Libyan resistance would have been successful in its defense of the city.

The real advantage of the airstrikes is their emotional effects. Pro-Qaddafi soldiers who yesterday or the day before were convinced of Qaddafi’s inevitable success are now more likely to abandon Brother Leader and his dwindling forces. That, I feel, will be where the ultimate success of the coalition efforts is seen. Not in the planes and tanks that they destroy, but in the message that they send to the remaining Qaddafi loyalists – It's over.

As I said before, the final victory will belong to the Libyan people – they are the ones who will ultimately remove Qaddafi from power.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Voting on constituional referendum in Egypt today!

Unprecedented events today in Egypt. (i've been covering the chaos elsewhere for so long that I've neglected some important developments there)

Voting has been underway for several hours, and there have been long lines reported at the voting centers. (Egyptian Blogger Mona el Tahawni commented that, for once it's good to be standing in a line)

For most Egyptians, this is the first time they've voted in an election where they didn't know the outcome ahead of time.

The essential breakdown in the "no" vs. "yes" vote is a disagreement over whether the constitutional reforms are necessary immediately despite their imperfections, or if they proposed changes are inadequate and should have more time spent on them.

This is, of course an oversimplification, and there are a variety of specific points of debate, but I'm not really equipped to explain the nuances. Instead I'll direct you to these three pages:

The specific proposed constitutional changes

"voting yes"

"voting no"

The important thing to note here is that the democratic process is underway in a healthy and inspiring fashion.

Here's to the Arab Spring

Friday, March 18, 2011


So, where are we at?

An issue I neglected to address in Tuesday mornings post on the Palestinian protests is that March 15 was supposed to be a “day of rage" for Syria as well.

It's not that I didn't think it was important, but I didn't think that we would see much of it. In a region full of repressive regimes, Syria is one of the worst. The state security apparatus is frighteningly effective, and government has shown itself more than willing to use excessive force on many occasions. These, in conjunction with a relatively stable population have led me to leave the Syrian regime in the "safe" column as far as political upheaval goes.

True to form, the protests in Syria were small and quickly controlled by Syrian police. Some arrests, and some violence for sure, but that was the end of it.

Or so I thought…

While I and many others were focused on the dramatic events transpiring in Libya something surprising happened in Syria - the protests continued.

Egyptian blogger Zenobia commented on Tuesday night,

"If our dear Syrian brothers and sisters managed to protest till Friday , till the Friday prayers it will be a great triumph."

Although I am a devoted reader of her blog, at I was busy thinking about Libya, Bahrain, and Palestine and I failed to take note of her prediction.

As it turns out she was right. Syria is no longer on the safe list.

(Other countries currently on the safe list are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco. The way things are going, however I may need to move a few of them over the next month or two).

Anyway, Syria. Big deal for sure. I was hoping that Qaddafi's brutality would serve as a "don't go there" sign for other Middle East tyrants, but unfortunately that seems not to be the case (particularly in Yemen and Bahrain). Instead, what seems to have happened is that the Syrian people are taking their lead from the Libyans.

Unabashed defiance in the face of almost certain death, injury, or incarceration.

Large scale protests in five Syrian cities.

Police using live ammunition on protesters in the streets.

Citizens storming a state security building.

Basically like a mini Egypt in fast-forward.

Rather than simply reiterating what has already been posted, I'll direct you to Zenobia's blog where she has some excellent coverage. She's an enthusiastic and devoted blogger - I don't always agree with her interpretations, but she takes her work very seriously and does an outstanding job of reporting events as she sees them.

Anyway, once again, all bets are off.

Here's to the Arab Spring...

So everything is great in the Middle East now!

Oh. Wait. Never mind. (Link)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

So there it is. No Fly Zone over Libya.

I wasn't crazy about the idea, but when the Arab League backed it I was somewhat mollified (and pretty much assumed that it was inevitable).

It'll be interesting to see who gets to enforce it. The nearest US carrier is in the Red Sea, and can't do it without flyover permission from Egypt. The French have a Harrier/VTOL carrier in the Med, and the British have a Helocarrier nearby, but neither is ideal for air-to-air combat against dedicated fighter jets.

Qaddafi should do some good speechmaking tonight.

Bahrain, Palestine, and ... Armenia?

What the hell, Bahrain?

The Shiites have hit the fan in Bahrain – Bahraini police and military have been supplemented by more than 1000 Saudi Arabian troops (and some from the UAE), complete with tanks and armored trucks. At least eight people have been killed, with hundreds more injured. Police have been using live ammunition, and there are reports of them firing indiscriminately into crowds obstructing their path.
There has been significant outcry by Shiites in Iran and Iraq (not that Saudi Arabia cares), and at this point the Bahraini royal family has made it clear that they are little more than Satraps for the Saudi Government.

At this point, the violence in Bahrain also seems to be part of an internal power struggle in the Bahraini royal family. Much of the incoherence and inconsistency of the government’s response to the protests (alternating between tolerance and violence) stems from divisions between progressive and conservative elements. Although the progressives were in ascendancy for some time, the involvement of the Saudi government (who strongly back the conservative elements) has reversed that power balance

In conversations on Bahrain (and Yemen and Libya) a question comes up again and again – “Why are these governments so willing to resort to violence against their own people?”

The answer is a pretty simple one – traditionally the autocratic governments of the Middle East have held power through a judicious threefold mix:

a. propaganda,
b. intimidation
c. force

With the advent of widespread electronic communication (both internally and externally) the effectiveness of propaganda has dramatically shrunk. Intimidation still has some effectiveness, but Egypt and Tunisia have served as an example and an inspiration to protesters elsewhere, successfully hobbling the effectiveness of intimidation. Without these two, there is nothing left for a regime to call upon except for force.

“So why not find new options? Isn’t it obvious that the violence will only make it worse?”

Here’s the essential problem: There is no plan B.

As was painfully obvious in the case of Mubarak, the powers that be in the Middle East have been entirely unprepared for what has come to be called “the Arab spring”. The status quo in these countries has been firmly in place for decades, and the skills required to retain authority have had more to do with internal power plays among the elites. An evolutionary shift is underway, and few leaders, if any, have the right range of skills to navigate this new terrain.


Lots of stuff going on in Palestine/Israel – seized weapons from Iran, settlement building as collective punishment for the murders in Itamar, rumors of a Syria/Israel peace deal, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abbas announced that he won’t be running for reelection – things are always exciting in the Levant.

All of that aside, the issue that I want to touch on is the Palestinian “Day of Rage” protests. There were rallies in Gaza and the West Bank for unity between Hamas and the PA. These expressions of frustration at the gridlock created by having two separate and opposing governments weren’t the product of efforts by either the PA or Hamas, but both Fateh and Hamas were quick to co-opt the rallies.

The protests in Gaza ended a bit early, when Hamas security decided that it was time for the crowds to disperse, and started beating people with clubs.

This speaks to an interesting and unfortunately often overlooked issue – legitimacy. At this point neither Hamas nor Fateh have any. Excepting the die-hard supporters of the two parties (who are often beneficiaries of a paternalistic carrot and stick approach to governance) most Palestinians are sick of both groups.

Mahmoud Abbas is acutely aware of this, and seems to have grown tired of being the whipping-boy for the Israeli government (After the murders in Itamar his public denunciation of the act was deemed insufficiently loud enough by Netanyahu, and he was told that he needed to make sure that the Palestinians heard him clearly – as if most of the Palestinians give a damn what Abbas says about anything).

Word is that Palestinian elections are about six months away, an event that probably wouldn’t favor Fateh or Hamas. Hamas only won the 2006 elections because internal divisions in Fateh split their voting bloc, and over the past few years Hamas has shown themselves to be just as corrupt and nepotistic as the party that they beat. They haven’t secured any visible gains for the Palestinians, and they haven’t shown much in the way of leadership – this has not gone unnoticed. Unless Fateh and/or Hamas can put up some fresh young faces soon they are both poised to lose significant power in the next election.


Just a quick third note – although Armenia’s inclusion in “the greater middle east” is debatable, they had some protests two weeks ago, and round two is today.

Worth watching for sure.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Libyan updates – only a few, but all of them significant.

News out of Libya has seemed grim lately, largely because in the absence of information many news agencies have taken to repeating Qaddafi’s dubious propaganda as though it had some basis in reality.

As I said before, Qaddafi’s forces are not equipped for a long term fight. They have an advantage when it comes to training and equipment, but their numbers are dwindling and their supply chains are thin or almost entirely nonexistent. Troops, officers, and pilots continue to defect to the anti-Qaddafi side at a rapid pace, and the revolutionaries now have a small but active Air force that has been striking against pro-Qaddafi targets.

This is particularly notable because earlier today two jets attacked strategic targets in Sirte (Qaddafi’s hometown, and one of his strongest bastions of support). After their ordnance had been expended they were expected to return to their base, but one of the pilots - Mokhtar Mohammed Osman - continued on to Tripoli and slammed his plane into the Bab Azizia military base (the same one that Reagan bombed in the 1980s), inflicting some serious damage (probably more psychological than physical). Some report that two high-stature Libyan officials – possibly even members of Qaddafi’s family - were injured in the attack, but confirmation of a statement like this is so impossible there’s no real reason to even repeat it except for my own wishful thinking.

Although still waiting for confirmation, there is also word that Sirte has fallen to the anti-Qaddafi forces within the past few hours. This is HUGE, and if true it means that aside from some surrounding towns, Tripoli is Qaddafi’s final stronghold. If this is the case, a massive and rapid counterattack by Libyan government forces can be expected – the ignominy of Qaddafi losing control of his hometown is not something he is likely to tolerate.

For ongoing updates you should be checking

Updates on Palestine and Bahrain tomorrow.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tomorrow is Palestine’s “Day of Rage”

Plenty going on in the region – Yemen’s president is making overtures to a longtime opposition leader (though not to the protesters in the street), Oman’s Sultan is enacting substantial reforms to the country’s political structure, and Bahraini and Saudi security forces have begun using force against the protesters in the streets of Bahrain. Furthermore, the tragic events in Japan have drawn the attention of the world (and the bulk of the mainstream news coverage) away from the Middle East, while highlighting the world’s limited options for assuaging its endlessly growing need for energy.

As much as I’d like to address all of these issues I can only do so much in the time I have. In this post from two weeks ago I tried to get at some of what the “Arab Spring” might mean for the state of Israel. I hadn’t planned on returning to the topic right away, but circumstances have drawn me back.

Over the past several days the “boycott-Israel week” has swung into action, and Israel’s anti-propaganda propaganda has hit back, both parties behaving in predictable fashion. The usual exchange of vitriol and rhetoric was horribly interrupted three days ago when five members of an Israeli family (including a 3-month old baby and a 4 year-old child) living on a settlement in Itamar were horribly stabbed to death by currently unidentified attackers (two Palestinian suspects are in custody, many others have been detained for questioning). The intimate savagery of the act is of a different magnitude than the usual anonymous rockets and bombs but the Japanese earthquake seems to have drowned it out on the global stage.

Regardless, the impact of the event cannot be underestimated. Unless it is the isolated act of a crazy person, (which seems unlikely at this point) this is what is known as a “spoiler” in the field of conflict resolution – a violent act intended to spur retaliation with the goal of restarting a cycle of reprisals and revenge. It’s too well timed (tomorrow was designated as Palestine’s “Day of Rage” weeks ago), it is horrifyingly calculated, and it will most likely be successful in its goal.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Can Qaddafi regain control? Don't bet on it.

News from Libya over the past few days has been alternately frustrating and depressing. The momentum of the opposition forces seems to have broken as they reached Qaddafi’s main strongholds of Sirte (his hometown) and Tripoli (the capital). Once they lost their inertia, Gaddafi was able to begin concerted counterattacks. Despite being numerically outnumbered, Gaddafi’s remaining troops are his most loyal and by extension, the best equipped and best trained soldiers.

However, despite the pessimism on the part of many, it is important to note that a war of attrition would not favor Gaddafi. To preserve his primary advantage (better weapons and equipment) he needs a robust support system for his forces – something that only comes with money, supply chains, and loyalty. The elite soldiers may still support him, but the logistical components of his army will be much harder to retain - mechanics, cooks, truck drivers, etc. are what make a military function in the long run, and at this point they are only likely to carry the army’s burden while under duress. This goes double for the air force support crew. The more sorties a plane flies, the greater its need for careful maintenance and repair (just ask US helicopter crews in Afghanistan), and the higher the risk of serious systems failure.

Qaddafi may be able to recapture some of his lost ground, and he may even successfully retake some of his oil and gas production/refinement areas, but the only strategic advantages those will afford him are morale-related. He won’t be able to resume gas exports – the people who kept the refineries operating were the foreign workers who evacuated weeks ago, and the home-grown Libyan work force is notoriously inadequate. Large portions of his funds have been frozen, he has few trading partners for whatever oil he may have - maybe Venezuela, but they don’t really need oil, they make plenty of their own.

There is also some good news today. The Arab league has asked the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. (It is worthwhile to note that the countries most resistant to the idea were Syria, Yemen, and Algeria – all countries that are dealing with some precarious political situations, and have used violence against their own citizenry or are likely to do so in the near future.). This paves the way for a multilateral projection of force that is less likely to bite the US in the ass later. I’ve been pretty critical of a US-led no-fly zone, but the explicit approval of the Arab League significantly assuages my concerns.

The White House has already responded positively to the Arab League's statement, and Hillary Clinton will be meeting with one of the main Libyan opposition leaders shortly.

The pace has been excruciating, but I believe that the long-term outcome will be a good one.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Insights on Egypt's future from Spain's past

I’ve been away from home for the past few days, which has made it difficult to do much writing, but being on the road (or in the air) has allowed me to do some catch-up reading that I’ve been meaning to get to.

In particular, I’ve had time to read and reflect on the state of Egypt, and its future hopes for a democratic society.

Oftentimes I’ve heard comments to the effect of “Arabs (or Egyptians) have no history of democratic governance, and so their transition to a democratic state is either impossible, unlikely, or at best far away.

The claim that Arabs or Egyptians have no history of democratic governance is far too dismissive of a broad-brush statement to be all that useful, but it is an argument that can be made, particularly within the context of the past century. Some fledgling attempts at democracy have taken place, but autocracy has generally been the norm in Egypt and in the wider MENA.

In the course of my reading over the past few days I was struck by a passage in the article “Spain After Franco” by Omar G. Encarnación

“The country’s previous and only significant attempt at living under a democratic system (the brief and chaotic Second Republic, 1931–36) descended into civil war and cemented Spain’s reputation as a society in which conflict and the potential for violence were ever-present.”
I came across the piece while looking for historical insights into possible future directions for Egyptian democracy. In light of the recent disruptions to the Egyptian State Security apparatus, I’ve been looking at a variety of precedents on how post-revolution societies deal with the remnants of the institutions of repression. Argentina, Chile, and South Africa have provided some insights for potential models and outcomes, but post-Franco Spain seems to be fertile ground for clues to a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Spain’s transition from an autocratic dictatorial regime to a democratic one came about in a swift and unexpected fashion – few, if any saw it coming, and as the quotation above suggests, no credible precedent for democratic self-governance existed. After decades of alternating between dictators and civil war, Franco came to power in the 1930’s. Despite his alliance with Italy and Germany during the Second World War, and his ruthless methods of control (secret police, censorship, outlawing of rival political parties, intimidation, torture, arrests, etc.), by the 1950’s he was a strong Cold War ally of the US.

Regardless, within three years of Franco’s death in 1975 Spain was experienceing the successful and unprecedented process of full democratization despite the reticence of established military and religious institutions, the presence of an active domestic terrorist organization, competition between several highly contentious political movements, a major economic collapse, and the cultural scars of decades of brutal repression. An attempt at a military coup failed miserably in 1981, and a year later Spain joined NATO and elected its first non-fascist government in more than four decades.

I highly recommend Encarnacion’s paper – it’s less than ten pages long, but it offers some useful insights and some promising hints towards a positive future for Egypt.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Out of town

I'll try to get a post up tomorrow, but I don't have a reliable internet connection right now.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hey, what about the rest of Africa?

All the things I’m missing

Looking back over on the six weeks or so that I've been writing this blog I'm struck by two things: how much I’ve covered, and how much I haven't even begun to touch on.

Most notably, I've barely mentioned Iraq, where some really dramatic events are taking place, but there are several other countries in the greater Middle East that haven't gotten much mention at all - particularly the “-stans”, but also other significant portions of Muslim Africa like Mauritina, Somalia and Djibouti, all of which are in the midst of the things that are in and of themselves, just as important as any of the events I've described a this blog.

This, of course, raises the question of “what exactly is the Middle East?" The answer to that question is an ambiguous mix of history, language, culture, and geography - a deeper examination of that can be found here.

Beyond the simple issue of what is or is not the Middle East, it is important to draw attention to a larger conceptual and philosophical issue. Although the seeds of the events we are seeing today were planted long ago, the event that really kicked it off was the one that took place in Tunisia. From that point forward, the eyes of the western world have been on Libya and Egypt for the past several weeks, with regular glances over to the Arabian Peninsula.

But, in spite of all that, why do we care so much about what happens in the Middle East/North Africa and so little about what happens in the rest of Africa?

I’d like to use this blog to address the wider issue of Africa, beginning with a bit of speculation, and then some comments and updates that, while far from comprehensive, may at least inspire you to look in a few new directions over the next several weeks and months.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not well versed in African history. In the past I've had the good fortune to share a house with several remarkable individuals from Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and through conversations with them and the simple act of living alongside them I have acquired some small slivers of understanding with regards the cultures of these two countries. I've also had a decent enough education in European history to understand some of the colonial circumstances that led up to the current conditions we see today.

I don't really know much about sub-Saharan Africa, but I've got a pretty good idea as to why I don’t know much about it.

First of all, it should be pointed out that Africa is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the convenience store, but that's just peanuts to Africa. To really understand the size of the continent it's worthwhile to look at this map.

Then there’s the linguistic situation – unlike South America, which is also a huge continent with dozens of countries, there is no common language that is spoken almost universally across the entire landmass. Take, for example, my dear friend Alex. A young man in his 20’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he speaks seven distinct languages fluently – Bembe/Ichibemba, Efe, Lengala, Mboko, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French, and English (this is not to mention dialects). Most of his linguistic range was developed in only two countries - DRC and neighboring Rwanda, and many of them aren’t spoken outside of small distinct geographic regions. (English was a latecomer; he had only begun to speak it after his arrival to America a year earlier.)

French will get you by in some parts of Africa, Arabic in others, Swahili in some, Hausa elsewhere, English or Afrikaans in other places - every country has multiple languages, and even multiple dialects within those languages. There is no one language that can carry you across Africa in a way that Arabic can take you all the way across the Middle East. Africa contains 53 countries, and even a well-educated scholar would have trouble identifying even a fifth them on an unlabeled map. (You're welcome to try to prove me wrong, here's an online quiz)

This linguistic and geographic complexity, combined with the limited (for now) strategic importance of Africa to the global economy means that for most people, the effort required to familiarize oneself with the continent of Africa seems to be a rather daunting task with little reward involved.

Even in the course of writing this blog, I have become ashamed of the limits to my own knowledge on Africa.

In fact, here’s a challenge – lets learn the names of all of the African countries and their capitals, and be able to locate them on an unlabeled map. I’ll commit to this for sure. We'll see how I do at the end of the year (maybe I'll make a YouTube video for you).

So, anyway, Africa.

The impact of the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian revolutions has been felt elsewhere in Africa, and more importantly, there are a number of events taking place in sub-Saharan Africa that may be as momentous as anything in the Arab world. But, don’t expect to see many of them on the news.

Let's begin (use this map for reference)

First of all, there is Cote d’ivore (AKA the Ivory Coast), which seems to be the most pressing situation. The country was on the verge of civil war over a disputed election before the first protests hit the streets of Tunisia. A predominantly French-speaking country of more than 20 million people, the former president has refused to step down after losing the 2010 election by a 46/54 margin.

The old president, Laurent Gbagbo, denied the accuracy of the election results, and claimed victory 52/48 in the opposite direction. Gbagbo is standing his ground, while the true winner, Alassane Ouattara, has been sworn in and established his own government. As a result, there are two separate and opposing governments in Cote d’ivore, and the armed clashes between them have been steadily escalating, with more than 300 deaths since December. (Some background here)

Most horrifying were the events late last week, where Gbagbo’s soldiers fired on a group of unarmed women at a rally for Ouattara, killing six. Gbagbo has also cut power and water supplies to the country’s north (largely under the control of Ouattara supporters) which may trigger a resumption of the 2002/2003 North/South civil war.

Not only are UN peacekeepers unable to protect the civilian population, they themselves are being targete by pro-Gbagbo forces, and thousands of people are fleeing the violence and unrest.

Gabon – not far from Cote d’ivore, is a small country of about 1.5 million that has been experiencing widespread protests for the past month. The current president, Ali Ondimba entered office in late 2009, and is the son of the previous president (who entered office in 1967 and had a long history of disputed elections). A pan-African news agency describes the situation thusly:
It’s understandable that protests in Gabon haven’t captured the world’s attention. Gabon is a small nation, with a population of 1.5 million, and very few casual newspaper readers could place it accurately on a map. But this lack of attention has consequences. As protests unfolded in Libreville, opposition leader André Mba Obame – who likely won the 2009 election – and his leading advisors took sanctuary in the UNDP's compound in the city, fearing arrest by Ali Bongo’s forces. According to recent Facebook posts, Obame and his advisors are facing steady pressure from UNDP to vacate the premises, and have already been ordered to surrender their cellphones.

Neighboring Camaroon, with a population more than ten times that of Gabon is also undergoing protests and forceful repression, but has received almost no news coverage in the west.

Zimbabwe, with a population of nearly 13 million, is experiencing a degree of uneasiness that seems to point to a brewing revolution. In particular, the government has arrested dozens of of potential protesters and activists for the simple act of watching the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions on television.

Although some have argued that the country is not yet ready for a revolution, the fact that the government would take these actions suggests that they are concerned that the unrest in North Africa could spread south, and some dissenting voices say that revolution should not be ruled out.

Angola, a country of close to 20 million, has long been the site of unrest and violence, including a 15 year long bloody civil war from 1975-1990. The current leader, José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 32 years, and protests loosely modeled on those seen in the Middle East were planned for today. These have been organized using the facebook+text message+word of mouth method – those interesting in seeing if the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions can be exported elsewhere would do well to watch Angola very closely. (English version here)

Tanzania – I’ve been reading Katebomb’s blog pretty regularly, and she’s been writing some great stuff on the situation there. Rather than trying to sum up I'll just point you there.

Understanding Africa sometimes seems like a hopeless task - it seems so unstable and chaotic and overwhelming and we don’t have the deep geopolitical connections to Africa that we have in the Middle East. There are a whole host of reasons for this (don’t say it’s because Africa doesn’t have oil. Africa has lots of oil) Size and complexity is a factor as well, but I think the real reason why we as Americans don’t get Africa is that Africa doesn’t have any countries that are players on the world stage. The big powerhouses are in Europe, North America and Asia.

Well...maybe powerhouses aren't where the story is anymore.

Still playing catch-up

I haven't been able to finish either of the pieces I'm in the middle of, so I didn't get around to posting any updates on Sunday. Instead you should check out Juan Cole's post, "Top Ten Achievements of Mideast Democracy Protests this Weekend" over at Informed Comment.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Amazing events in Egypt today and yesterday

Just a quick post today, I'm sorry it's been a few days since my last one, but I've been trying to finish several more in-depth posts, and they take a little longer than my conventional updates and snark. I’ll have another post up soon, probably not today but certainly tomorrow. (This blogging stuff is a lot of work!)

I mostly just wanted to bring your attention to two very interesting things that happened in Egypt over the last few days.

First of all, Thursday night something incredible happened.

The Prime Minister of Egypt was a guest on a popular Egyptian late night TV talk show and he spent about an hour and a half reiterating double-talk and vague patronizing fluff regarding the next steps for the Egyptian government. (That’s not the incredible thing)

After 90 minutes of his pandering bullshit, the host suddenly brought in additional guests – two well-known and respected Egyptian journalists who sat down and gave the Prime Minister the grilling of his life. The show continued for another two hours and the heavy back-and-forth basically made the PM look like a myopic tool, an out-of-touch jerk, and a blatant holdover from the Mubarak regime.

The only word to describe this is unprecedented. Even Lebanon, which has a fairly healthy and robust fourth estate, has never experienced anything like this - a prominent head of state being called on his crap in front of a nation of viewers.


As if that simple but momentous act of accountability was not enough, Friday morning brought with another bombshell: the Prime Minister had resigned.

It's not clear if he resigned due to his own humiliation, or if he was told to step down because his actions showed him to be so obviously unfit to lead. Regardless, it's an amazing event, and one that should be celebrated by everyone who appreciates the power of a free press.

Egyptian blogger Zenobia gives a wonderfully entertaining account of this event here.

The Prime Minister's replacement, Essam Sharaf, has a very good reputation as an effective minister and a supporter of the Egyptian protesters. Profiles of him can be found here and here. (Thank you to MEI editor Michael Dunn for the links)


As exciting and encouraging as this event was, today something even more remarkable happened.

First, a moment of context: Shortly after Mubarak stepped down from his position as Egypt's President, "rioters" burned down a police headquarters. The circumstances of the incident were such that it was painfully obvious to everyone that the culprits were Egyptian police/State Security personnel intent on destroying the evidence of decades of wrongdoing preserved in the station archives. This was followed by another incident two days ago where another police station was set on fire, destroying countless more files documenting thousands of additional corrupt and brutal acts against the Egyptian people.

Today, clashes between Egyptian State Security (secret police) officers and protesters took place in Alexandria outside of an infamous state security building where documents were being destroyed. In this situation, however, the violence was escalating dramatically, and the military intervened when State Security snipers were beginning to fire on the protesters. The security forces were dragged off by the army and the building was secured by the Egyptian people! Many documents were lost, but many others were saved.

Zenobia has an amazing account of this as well.

This bodes well for the new Egyptian century, and very poorly for the butchers and thugs of its past.

It’s going to be pretty interesting...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

February was an interesting month, wasn’t it? Wait till you see what's next.

February was an interesting month, wasn’t it?

Mark my words, March will be even more interesting.


Egypt and Tunisia still have a long way to go, though Tunisia has finally lifted its state of emergency, and Egypt is fast tracking elections. I’ll try to keep you apprised of those situations as best I can, but it won’t be easy given how much other stuff is coming down the pipeline. Updates are probably going to come in the form of links, rather than summaries.

If you're interested in the current power structure in Egypt, Issandr el Amrani over at the has put up a particularly informative post that's worth checking out.


Iran – The March 1 protests were notably different than those seen previously, particularly in the degree to which violence has been a factor. Although the Feb14 protesters did suffer a few attacks, and the 2009 protests saw several clashes between the protesters and the police/militia, yesterday there was much more rapid aggression on the part of the police (including deployment of riot squads) and the crowds (which were notably larger than the Feb14 crowds) were quick to counter with violence of their own. A recap of the days events can be found here.

Prominent opposition leaders Moussavi and Karroubi, already under house arrest, may have been recently imprisoned by the Iranian government. The government denies this, however, saying it is only propaganda generated by the MKO. (Not than anyone believes them)

The Iranian government began utilizing an interesting tactic in response to the tech-driven nature of the protests – anyone (particularly youth) walking or driving in the area near where the planned protests planned took place was stopped by police. The police checked their ID and searched their bags/pockets. Anyone with a phone, camera, or laptop was then photographed. This represents a frighteningly smart shift in the government’s efforts to counter the protests, and provides them with a fairly comprehensive database of tech/media savvy youth that may or may not be connected to the protests. The database will doubtlessly be used to identify potential activists for targeted monitoring.

There is good news as well - some unrest among Iranian labor groups has begun to surface. As I said before, the Green Movement has little hope of success if it doesn't gain traction among the trade unions and merchants.


Saudi Arabia has done an interesting thing...and by interesting I mean, awful with ominous portent for the future.

Shooting random Saudi facebook protest-organizers is not a good way to tell the world that you are secure in the legitimacy of your mandate to lead.


Over in Libya, Qaddafi is holed up in Tripoli with the last of his army, periodically making attacks on nearby cities. This situation has gotten so bad that the supposedly elite Khamis Bragade has been unable to break through the defenses of a civilian uprising.

Looking back at my post from Saturday, it seems that I was less generous than I should have been with regards to how long brother leader’s regime will stand – with close to 90% of the country lost (geographically and demographically) the only thing keeping Qaddafi afloat now is the hard-line loyalists, his mercenaries, and his fanatical self-confidence and delusion.

Regardless, the inevitability of such a thing is virtually inarguable.

Intervention seems to be a faint possibility, but at this point the most important services that our (and by “our” I mean “American”) troops can do is be prepared to deliver services to a country in desperate
need of food and medical supplies.

The possibility of a no-fly zone may be moving closer, but given the relative speed of your average United Nations resolution versus the pace of this particular revolution, it seems unlikely that we will see anything resembling the enforced no-fly zone that that we saw in Iraq during the last few years of the 20th century. Furthermore, it seems that many of the recent reports of air attacks against protesters and anti-government forces are not actually air attacks, but halfhearted overtures of attack, followed by deliberate mis-targeting that harms no one. There has even been at least one reported case of a Libyan pilot deliberately injecting from his plane, deliberately crashing it into an open field rather than fire on Libyan citizens.

Regardless, the longer this conflict continues, the greater the likelihood of intervention.

In terms of Libya’s outlook for the future - it’s anybody’s guess, but some scenarios seem more likely than others.

The two that I have seen cited most often are worlds apart – stable constitutional democracy or fragmentation. (note: both of these scenarios are contingent on the absence of US/UK/UN intervention. If external forces are involved then the dynamic changes rather dramatically.)

Libya does have few advantages over egypt and Tunisia.

1. When this grisly scene finally reaches its conclusion, there won’t be much left of the old guard. Some of the more powerful tribal leaders will certainly win big in an election scenario, but it’ll be pretty difficult for anyone with deep connections to the Libyan regime to retain much power. Libya will be taking their steps towards freedom without the entrenched pwer structures that Egypt and Tunisia are still struggling with.

2. Despite the general failure of the political system invented by Gaddafi and promulgated in his “Green Book”, an important aspect of the “Jamhariyya” is its heavy reliance on direct democracy for local governance. Although the system was severely hampered by the corruption and interference from nepotistic elites, the Libyan people are quite familiar with the democratic process.

3. Lack of diversity – Libya has a strong sense of self identity. This is not to say that Libya is homogeneous, but its religious and ethnic minority populations are quite small - this is also good because it means they are less likely to be seen as a political, cultural, or demographic threat and can more comfortably be integrated into the process of democratization.

However, some inclinations towards chaos are also present, particularly the inter-tribal rivalries that Gaddafi has spent decades exploiting. I am fairly optimistic about the potential for good outcomes but the issue of vendetta and retaliation is very real, and will probably be with us for years if a vehicle resolution is not in place.

This is an issue that many countries face in the aftermath of heavily repressive regimes, and a variety of coping methods have been used by the dazed and damaged populations as they emerge from under the boot of oppression. I’ll try to get a post up in the next few days on how South Africa, Spain and Argentina handled the ghost of their bloody and brutal history – there are important lessons to be learned from all three examples.


The most notable “I sure didn’t see that one coming” from the past week is Oman. I know a thing or two about Oman (I did some work for the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center when I was interning at the Middle East Institute) and the Sultan has a reputation for being progressive and forward thinking, so I was particularly surprised to see that they, too, are not immune from the momentum of the Arab Spring. I’ll be putting up a piece on Oman, Sultan Qaboos, and Ibadi Islam in the next few days - stay tuned.
(In the meantime you can scroll through a piece on Frankincense that I put together for the SQCC five years ago - I think some of it got lost when it was posted online, but it's still a fun little piece)