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Saturday, February 26, 2011

We are Fires in the Night.

The big news today, as far as Libya is concerned (from an American perspective), is president Obama’s comments. Frustrating as it may have been to get little more than silence from the White House for the past several days, the logic behind their actions was solid, and fairly evident to those familiar with State Department procedure. Despite the horrific nature of the events on the ground in Libya, the American president’s primary obligation is the safety of his own citizens, and in this case (given that he was dealing with an individual of obviously unsound mind), it was imperative that the American embassy staff be evacuated before any substantive action could be taken.

If the White House had come out strongly against Gaddafi earlier (while American embassy staff were still on the ground in Tripoli) there was a very real possibility that Gaddafi might retaliate, using State Department employees as leverage, or even as targets for violence. It is worthwhile to note that his comments on Libya came barely minutes after the last plane of Americans had taken off from Tripoli.

Obama’s comments today were probably the ones he wanted to make several days ago, and although they carried with them no overtures of force projection, the way things look on the ground that won’t be necessary anyway.

So, where do things stand?

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that the regime’s timeline is down to its last hours - maybe 24, possibly 48. The regime has been madly shedding diplomats and officials for several days now, and with the end in sight, even the most obstinate and myopic supporters of the regime are probably weighting their options (which, at this point probably aren’t much better than
1. Suicide
2. Death at the hands of an angry mob
3. A public trial for their crimes against the Libyan people.

Frankly, I’d like to see a trial, but that raises an interesting point.

Two days ago I was on the phone with my saintly Quaker grandmother. Although she knew that there was something happening in Libya, she professed ignorance as to the specific details. Given my own compulsive inclination towards exposition and contextualization, I gave her a two-minute summary that covered the scope and scale of the protests, the horrific acts by mercenaries and military, and the inevitability of the regime’s demise.

“At this point,” I said, “Qaddafi will probably go out like Cheaucesceeu or Mussolini, but personally, I’d like to see him in front of an international Court of Justice.”

“Ehh...What good would that do?” She said In an offhand manner. “Maybe one of his soldiers will shoot him.”

Now...the vast majority of the people reading this probably don’t grasp the magnitude of that statement, but when my grandmother - one of the sweetest most peace-loving and nonviolent people I’ve ever known in my life - casually tosses out tacit approval of extrajudicial execution…well…there’s not much more that can be said.

Hey Qaddafi! Even pacifists think you need to be put down like the rabid badger that you are.

***

I’m trying to pull together two more solid and substantive blogs for this weekend, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll get both of them out before Monday. I should get at least one of them out tomorrow, and it’ll be a good one (I think).

I’ll say the same thing this week that I was saying last week...in the same way that Egypt was consuming all of the available “media oxygen” then, Libya is doing the same thing now. Very important things have been happening in many other countries, and they should certainly be addressed…I‘ll try to get there...

***

Just one interesting final point before I conclude this post - the situation in Libya has had a rather interesting and unexpected impact in Venezuela that is addressed here. I highly recommend that you read the article, but to sum up, Hugo Chavez’s state-run media mouthpiece sent a media team to Libya several days ago when the situation was beginning to crest. Because of Chavez’s fairly strong relationship with Qaddafi, the news network painted a picture that was entirely in line with Qaddafi’s personal perception of the situation, but so far detached from reality that it has made them the laughingstock of the Venezuelan population. Although Chavez has built his political career on the gullibility of a large portion of the Venezuelan community, the obvious disconnect between the messaging of the state TV and every other available information source has been comedic, dramatic, and unignorable.

Gaddafi has done us another favor - he has shown Venezuelan state television to be nothing more than government funded liars.

Thanks Gaddafi!

***

More to come tomorrow.

In the meantime, I just found out about Band of Skulls...aren’t they awesome?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Please help the people of Libya

As I've mentioned earlier, it's difficult to watch the horrific events from so far away and feel helpless. For those of you who are looking for something that you can do to help the people of Libya the good folks over at http://www.libyafeb17.com/ provided me with a connection to World Medical Camp of Libya http://www.wmclibya.org/

World Medical Camp Libya
PayPal - No Account Required






I'll keep the paypal button on my sidebar, so please keep the link handy and direct your friends to my page if they mention a desire to help.

We can't give blood, but we can at least give money.

Libya and the wider situation - Updates

Algeria has finally lifted the state of emergency that has existed since the early ‘90s which means that the government’s authority to use the military will, in theory at least, be curtailed. Given that Bouteflika has been using the military against dissidents for 20 years, it remains to be seen whether ending emergency powers will actually change anything.

“Gaddafi’s gift”, as I called it on Wednesday, may be paying off in Yemen, where after multiple deaths the President actually issued an order for the military to protect the protesters. We’ll see how long it lasts.

The violence against protesters in Bahrain also seems to have paused for the moment, as the various parties gather themselves for the next round of who knows what.


Iran seems grim. The protests aren’t really getting as much traction as they need to, and without the support of the workers unions and the merchants it doesn’t look good for them. Some rather sobering analysis here. An interesting election took place yesterday for the leadership of Iran's chamber of commerce which may play out in some interesting long-term ways as Iranian business leaders continue to flex and grow their power.

Saudi Arabia – After several weeks of surgery and convalescence in Europe and Morocco, King Abdullah returned home and showered his citizens with $37,000,000,000 in gifts/benefits in a move that, frankly, comes across as a cheap way of paying off his citizens to keep them happy. And there’s plenty more money where that came from, particularly given that oil prices are now over $120 a barrel. (On that note, Tom Friedman, whose NYT columns have been pretty hit-or-miss for quite some time, finally had a really good one this week)

Overall, even if countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco and Jordan only see minor reforms in the aftermath of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, it’s still a positive step forward. Rights, once given, are harder to take away, and every crack in the façade is a step closer to regime collapse.

In Israel there were rocket attacks from Gaza into Be'er Sheva yesterday, which fortunately only damaged a building and didn’t take any lives. As expected, the IDF response was swift and unequivocal. I’ll be putting up a post on Israel in a day or two, so I’m not going to get too deeply into that right now.

The situation in Libya can’t last much longer. A constitutional committee is underway in Benghazi and despite the viciousness of Gaddafi’s actions his troops are rapidly losing ground. His personal Envoy just fled to Egypt to beg for asylum and there are rumors of a split in the Khamees brigade, which (if true) would mean that it’s pretty much over for Brother Leader.

End of the line, G.

(Stay tuned to http://www.libyafeb17.com/ for continual updates)

I’ve had some interesting conversations about US intervention in Libya, and as much as a no-fly zone would be nice, it unfortunately isn’t as simple or easy as it sounds. Some good analysis here and here. As shocking and horrifying as the reports of planes firing on crowds of people is, the vast majority of the killing has been done on the ground with soldiers, mercenaries, tanks, and artillery. To do something really effective would require much more than keeping the government’s planes on the ground, and if this was a more protracted event intervention would probably be a realistic option but it looks to be just about over.

So what can we do? For one, Libya will need tremendous amounts of medical assistance once this ends (they actually need it now, but their #1 priority is to get rid of Gaddafi). I’m in the process of contacting some relief and aid agencies and some Libyans to see if we can coordinate or participate in some assistance activities – I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gaddafi’s gift to the Middle East.

It’s a funny thing, but Gaddafi has really done us all a favor here.

As I said yesterday, he has secured himself a place on the list of history’s most hated leaders. Like a predator who shits in the carcass of his prey to spoil the meat for those who come after him, Gaddafi has done his best to ruin his country - one world or none, you might say.

I will not waste print with accusations of malfeasance - there will be plenty of time for that in the days and weeks to come. Instead I want to extend a measure of thanks to him on behalf of the Middle East.

Thank you Gaddafi.

Thank you for reminding the other dictators what tyranny looks like to the rest of the world.

Many years ago you made yourself into an icon of sociopathic megalomania - this week you have taken that to it’s logical conclusion.

Sure, the scale of your destruction won’t reach the magnitude of Pol Pot, or Mao, or Stalin, or Mussolini, or the other butchers of the 20th century. What will set you apart from them is the extent to which it is being watched by the world.

You unleashed ruthless foreign mercenaries on your own people and within hours the pictures of the dead and wounded were spread across the internet.

You made incoherent mumbling denunciations from underneath an umbrella on a rainy night and the whole world was mocking you before the sun was up the next day.

It’s not what you did, it’s that we all saw it as it happened.
You are now a symbol of what not to do.

If, for example, the people of Syria start to flood the streets of Damascus demanding their dignity and their basic freedoms, Bashar al-Assad will have to choose his course of action carefully lest he be labeled "another Gaddafi"

The Iranian government must now step a bit more gingerly when dealing with their own angry youth in order to distinguish themselves from the wickedness of the Libyan regime.

Bahrain and Yemen now have to second guess the potential repercussions from their own acts of violence against their subjects and citizens.

Force is no longer a reliable guarantee of regime survival, and brutality is harder and harder to enact unnoticed. The cost of control has risen sharply over the past few days.

Gaddafi has given the world, and particularly the Middle East, a striking lesson in what no longer works.

(Minor follow-up - congratulations Brother Leader, the statisticians over at fivethirtyeight.com have determined you to be the #1 ranked dictator)

Minor update

Lots of people doing excellent updates now - I'll be posting some analysis later today when I get home.

In the meantime, you may find today's post at the Arabist interesting.

He links to a continuously updated google map tracking the status of the various Libyan towns and cities and whether they are government or protester controlled.

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=208005345448417215163.00049cf3a2cdebe5bd17f

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hey Gaddafi - as they say in Serbia, "May your house be live on CNN"

Well, seems the die is cast.

In an attempt to make up for last night’s “crazy man with an umbrella mumbling in a truck” speech, brother leader pulled out all the stops today. Raving lunacy on the world stage.



To mix metaphors, the Colonel has decided to go down with the ship of state, and really, why did I even think he would have gone any other way?

There was a point four days ago - before mercenaries were machine-gunning people in the streets of Benghazi, before hundreds of soldiers were executed for their refusal to fire on civilians, before fighter planes were strafing crowds of protesters, before artillery batteries were shelling cities, before ministers and ambassadors were jumping ship on live television around the world - There was a moment when it could have all gone differently.

He could have been a hero (or even "an hero"). He could have been everything that he thought he was in his own mind. Qaddafi holds no official title, and he has always claimed that it was the Libyan people who governed themselves and not he who held the reins.

He could have turned it all over to the people of Libya, given them the oil wealth and opportunity that was their birthright, disengaged himself from his position of authority and become one of the great African altruists. He could have ensured that his sons held positions of respect and honor in Libya for as long as they lived. He could have kept working towards the creation of the United States of Africa, and been remembered better for his final years and for those that came before.

He could have become what he always thought he was.

"the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims,"

Well, apparently that’s not going to happen.

Like the proverbial scorpion who stung the frog halfway across the river, some time last week Gaddafi‘s soul - the withered black selfish thing that it is - simply shrugged and said, “it is in my nature to do these things. I am a scorpion, I cannot help but sting”

Gaddafi, welcome to the list of history’s most hated.
I almost didn’t think you’d make it.

Seriously...what the hell, Gaddafi?



“I am satisfied, because I was speaking in front of the youth in the Green Square tonight, but the rain came praise to God it bears well. I want to clarify for them that I am in Tripoli not in Venezuela. Do not believe these channels they are dogs. Goodbye.”


It looks like something from the Muppet Show.

Monday, February 21, 2011

horrible things are happening in Libya right now.

I can't write right now. If you can handle it check al-Jazeera.

Follow-up
Updates here from Feb 25
Updates here from March 2
Updates here from March 12

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:

***

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 ---->

***

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.

**

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.

***

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

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All-out revolution is underway in Libya.

So, Libya again.

As I’ve said before, the situation in Libya is incredibly important.  It’s also unique in many respects.

Although Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt are all nearby, Libya differs from them significantly in its degree of isolation.  America has had working relationships with Algeria Egypt and Tunisia for quite some time, whereas our relations with Libya have only recently, and very slowly been thawing.neither the US government nor the US media have any substantial presence on the ground there.

Right now, what is going on in Libya is unlike the protests anywhere else in the Middle East.  Certainly, the violence in Bahrain and Yemen is jarring and horrific, but Libya is undergoing something of an entirely different stripe.  While the government of Bahrain has turned to its allies in Saudi Arabia for support in suppressing public protests, and the Yemeni government lacks the stability for a coherent response to the uprisings in their streets, Libya is undergoing an all out war.

War.

Battles for entire cities and towns are currently underway.  Helicopters are shooting at crowds, and government hired mercenaries (reportedly non-Libyan french-speaking Africans) are gunning people down in the streets.  Body count estimates at this point are into the hundreds, but I would suspect they are, in actuality, much higher.

The current strategy being used by the government speaks to the precariousness of their situation.  The fact that mercenaries have been deployed in cities suggests that the leadership does not fully trust its own soldiers to do the dirty work, and there have been reports of soldiers being beaten for refusing to fire on civilians and even some areas where the military seems to have joined with the protesters.

The  intensity of the uprisings seem to have taken the government by surprise, oddly enough.  Or perhaps the Libyan Army isn’t all that good at logistics, or perhaps there is turmoil within the ranks.  For whatever reason, there weren’t enough troops in place to control the situation when it began, and protester have seized two of the airfields in western Libya that were being used to reinforce the troops.

There have also been reports that some of the mercenaries have seized hundreds of hostages, and are demanding that they be allowed to leave safely in exchange for the release of their prisoners.

Benghazi was one of the first cities to rise up, and as a result of it has been the target of the heaviest attacks by Libyan military and the heaviest fighting. Hospitals are reportedly full of the dead and injured, the soldiers on the ground are shooting to kill, and Libyan voices are calling the government’s actions there “massacre”.

The extent of the situation is still unclear, but there are reports that the military has joined with the revolting citizens to free al-bayda and are headed to Benghazi to support the people in the streets there. There are also reports that the Libyan government is sending in more mercenaries to the conflict areas.

It’s basically become impossible to follow, but you can catch up here:

http://www.libyafeb17.com/ is pretty comprehensive,

I've also been following these four twitter feeds http://twitter.com/iyad_elbaghdadi and http://twitter.com/ShababLibya and http://twitter.com/EnoughGaddafi and http://twitter.com/libi4ever

Al Jezeera has a Libya live blog, but it's not as thorough as it should be

The Libyan government did shut down the internet yesterday, but parts of it seem to be back up.(Which is a good thing for bit.ly and anyone else using a .ly suffix)

The most comprehensive site for the situation on the ground is here:
http://www.libya-/letters/v2011a/v31jan11z.htm#n18feb116 (run through Google translate). Be warned - there are very graphic pictures of dead protesters on this page. This site will tell you more than you want to know about the situation right now.

This video is from the libya-watanona.com page - it's mostly protest footage, but be warned, there are some graphic images of the dead and wounded in the video as well.


Oh, yea, and Gaddafi's leadership congress has pledged a change in government administrators. Yea, that'll fix the situation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Blogger fatigue (and more on Bahrain and Libya)

Michael Dunn, Editor in chief of the Middle East Journal, had a blog up yesterday that hits on a serious issue that resonated with me – Middle East blogger fatigue. I’ve only been doing this for the past three weeks, and the scale of what’s going on is overwhelming and shows no signs of slowing down.

As the old saying goes – If all of us are special than none of us are special – if things are blowing up (metaphorically) all over, then how do you know what to focus on? The news media is certainly getting crushed by the breadth of the events at hand. How many Arabic speakers does CNN have on hand? Or the BBC? The only news agencies that are really in a position to cover what’s going on in the Arabic-speaking world are the Arabic news agencies like Al-Arrabiya and al-Jazeera (neither of which are available on cable in much of the US).

Even these news agencies are limited in their coverage; they can only put so many people on the ground at any given time. In the case of al-Jazeera (as we saw in Egypt) their presence is unwelcome, risky, or blocked outright in some of the places where the real action is. This leads to a sort of news triage on the part of the news agencies – put the reporters in the places where the big spectacular things are at (that you can get to). Locations where the protests are small or unlikely to bear short-term fruit (i.e. Jordan, or Syria) and places where the reporters would be at serious risk (Libya and Yemen) just aren’t going to get the attention they deserve.

The length of time involved is another serious issue. None of this will be resolved anytime soon. We will be seeing the aftershocks from the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings for the rest of our lives. When the Iranian post-election protests hit their third week their coverage in the US news was starting to weaken and taper off. When the situation was at an ebb all it took was the death of an American pop icon to drag the attention of a news-fatigued public away from the events on the other side of the planet. Fortunately for Egypt, they were able to reach the point of critical mass before the world lost interest. But now, what? 20011 is going to be a year of amazing political events, will we be able to keep track of it all? It’s only February. Will we still be able to care ten months from now in December when, say, Belarus is the twenty-second country to collapse under the pressure of a populace that has grown weary of indignity?

Then there’s the issue of specialization – the sheer diversity of Middle East/North African culture is staggering. (This is one of the most frustrating aspects about listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about as they paint the region’s inhabitants with broad brushes, “the Arabs are like this..”) Most serious Mid-east scholars, historians, political scientists, and Foreign Service specialists have a relatively good grasp of the broad facts of the region with some very specific areas of expertise. To expect a Farsi speaking Iran-focused analyst to weigh in on Tunisia is folly. To look to an Israeli/Palestine expert for insight into Bahrain is going to limit the depth of possible analysis.

There aren’t a lot of Tunisia or Bahrain experts weighing in on the events in Tunisia or Bahrain because there aren’t a lot of American experts on Tunisia or Bahrain.

You may ask, “What about you? What makes you think that you have the wherewithal to presume to blog about the Middle East? ”

Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m not really a specialist I don’t work in the Middle East right now, and my current day job doesn’t really have much to do with Middle East issues. I’m more of a new-media/social-media analyst than a Middle East expert. Despite that, I’ve got a very strong foundation in modern Middle East history, politics, and culture, as well as a few years of Arabic training, a rough handle on Hebrew, and a smattering of Farsi. This makes it easy for me to consume, filter, and assess a tremendous amount of information as it pours out of the intertubes in both traditional and new-media forms. I’m not so much a generalist as I am a synthesist – I follow everything and look for common threads and nodes. There are a few areas that I know a bit more about, but right now my main concern is to walk you (and myself) through the media fatigue.

Having said that, just two quick updates today

***

Bahrain – the situation in Bahrain is getting much more serious. Nicholas Kristof is there now, probably angling for another Pulitzer. Several more protesters were killed during a middle-of-the-night military raid, and the reports from the hospitals are horrifying.

There are two larger issues that are in play that I’d like to bring your attention to here:

1. As I mentioned earlier, Bahrain is 60-70% Shi’a, but ruled by a Sunni royal family. Although the country is relatively prosperous, many of the Shi’a populace feels that their opportunities and political representation are abridged and limited by structural favoritism on the part of the Sunni leadership. This is compounded by an ongoing policy that makes it very easy for Sunnis from other Arabic-speaking countries to get jobs and citizenship in Bahrain (this is an attempt by the Sunnis to counterbalance their relative demographic weakness). As a result, many of the police responding to the protests are not native Bahraini, but rather immigrants from elsewhere in the Arab world with little respect for the Shi’a protesters.

2. The Bahraini police have (as of yesterday) been supplemented by equipment and soldiers from Saudi Arabia. This is very bad. Not only are Saudis notoriously anti-Shi’a, it shows a dramatic position of weakness on the part of the Bahraini leadership. Additionally, this could potentially create a flashpoint that inflames Sunni/Shi’a hostilities elsewhere in the gulf.

Oh, yea, also the US navy 5th fleet is stationed at Bahrain. This isn’t looking good

***

Libya – Who knows. 14 dead? Maybe… probably more. Information has become even harder to get since yesterday. If you missed yesterday’s post you should go back and check it out.

I agree with Issandr el Amrani’s assessment – the protests in Libya are the most important protests now taking place in North Africa. Read his analysis, he says it better than I can.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Libya. Now.

I mentioned last week that Ghaddafi had been awfully quiet lately. Well, apparently his mouth is run out of patience. On Sunday he announced that … “Palestinian refugees should capitalize on the wave of popular revolts in the Middle East by massing peacefully on the borders of Israel until it gives in to their demands”

Ghaddafi has always had an interesting take on the Israel/Palestine situation, and although he’s not a fan of the Israeli government, he’s made it clear that he’s pretty Ok with the Israelis as a people (this was even before one of his sons started dating an Israeli model), and he has a much bigger problem with theocrats like the Saudis and the Iranians.

In this case, however, as much as he means what he says (which I think he does) he is also probably hoping that his recommendation will be taken seriously as a way in which to direct attention towards anything other than Libya.

I should’ve seen the signs. The fact that he’s making public pronouncements again usually means that something has set him off - the situation has changed.

When the list of Middle East “days of rage” first got posted last month the Libyan date for uprising was February 30. That made sense to me, as that was probably the only day of the year that such a thing would be likely in my opinion. That was later revised to Feb 17 by someone who knows how to look at a calendar.

Of course, there have already been some small protests, particularly in some coastal regions, but I wasn’t particularly expecting to see all that much happen. If there’s one guy who knows how to keep things locked down it is our dear Colonel.

(Full disclosure. Frankly, I’ve always been fascinated by Ghaddafi. Yes, he’s a dictator. Yes, he was an enthusiastic sponsor of terrorism throughout the world’s during the 1960s and 70s. Yes, he is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people both domestically and abroad. Yes, he has a tendency to say things that come across as crazy (though much of it isn’t really as crazy as it sounds). Yes, he did hire Doc Brown to build an a nuclear bomb back in the early ‘80s. I’m not saying that what Qaddafi has done in the past is morally acceptable, but when it comes to being a ruthless dictator, would you rather be known for your crazy outfits and your all-female bodyguard squad, or for butchering almost a quarter of your population or eating your political opponents? Say what you will about the guy, he has style.

That being said, when the rubber hits the road I’m going to throw my lot in with the Libyan people, and not that guy.

So, anyway, here’s what I was working towards – protests are already underway in Libya.

The protests kicked off early in the coastal town of Bengazi two days early, and the hammer-down by the government forces has already begun. The guardian UK is doing an outstanding job of keeping a protest roundup running. I highly recommend them as a way to keep abreast of the situation.

So what’s the score in Libya?

Right now, the capital is quiet except for some staged pro-Ghaddafi rallies. Protests are mostly in Benghazi and Tripoli.

The message that struck me most this morning was the tweet that said, “don’t show up with less than 100 people.”

Every single person protesting on the streets of Libya knows full well that they may not live to see tomorrow. The regime is ruthless. 15 years ago they massacred 1200 political prisoners in three hours because they were protesting for better prison conditions.

The bravery of the people in the streets of Bengazi cannot be overstated. These people are prepared to die, they may even be expecting to.

This, to me, is the wild card. There is an old Persian saying – You cannot leap a chasm with two jumps. If these people are not successful then, like Iran, the regime will spend the next several years eradicating everyone connected to the protests.

Please contact your political representatives today and ask them to bring pressure to bear on Ghaddafi - We may not have leverage with Iran, but we do have some influence with Libya. Please contact as many national news agencies as possible and let them know that the only thing that can keep the people on the streets of Libya alive is if their own voices are heard.

Ghaddafi is not stupid. He is proud of his stature in the African and Arab worlds and he wants to be seen as a reformer. This is the time for him to prove it. If we don’t see some public movement from him on this within the next day or so he plans on playing this grim situation out to the bitter end.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Green was Valentines day in Iran?

No blog yesterday, too much going on for me to really adequately cover until the reliable and the unreliable could be at least nominally sorted from each other. As it stands, parties on both sides of the riot shield stand to benefit through lies and exaggerations – all information needs to be regarded as at least marginally suspect, initially. That being the case, the fact that most groups of protesters are doing their best to document the events on the ground through videos, photos, and personal accounts, while the governments in question are actively suppressing all not-official communications doesn’t really incline me to be all that receptive of the “official” narratives.

***

Iran was the big one, yesterday. If the green movement couldn’t mobilize people in the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt, the movement could pretty much be considered dead. Fortunately, they hit the streets in a big way, with protests and demonstrations reported in almost all of the major Iranian cities, with crowds as large as 350,00 in Tehran – I can’t vouch for that number, of course, but they certainly seem to have crossed the six-figure mark. Some videos here.

The government’s response was forceful and violent, with tear gas, clubs, rubber bullets, propaganda, and knives sending a clear message – they want this stopped immediately. Whether it will stop is hard to say. Many of the young male protesters stayed in the streets through the night, and the government was reportedly using controlled neighborhood blackouts to stage raids on the various pockets of protesters.

The outcome of yesterday may simply be the clear message that the Green Movement is still alive, but they have shown their hand. Given that the government is executing, on average, one political prisoner every eight hours, the green movement will have to start publicly growing very quickly or the government will grind it down with sheer ruthless brutality.

Violence by the government may have been mitigated by the presence of Turkish president Abdullah Gul, who was beginning a three day visit to Iran, but the government will probably start ratcheting things up even farther. Some members of the Iranian parliament have already publicly called for the execution of opposition leaders Mousavi and Karoubi.

Frankly, I think the Shiites are about to hit the fan.


***

Bahrain – I was mildly surprised by the size of the protests in Bahrain. They were certainly not big enough to be a threat to the government yet, but if they show growth then we could see some dramatic events very soon. The government certainly took the protests seriously, moving riot police into the streets. Conflagrations between protesters and police punctuated the day, with “rolling battles” taking place across the city. It looks like they government is just trying to control the situation at this point, with a mind towards a rapid resolution. (there have, however, been two deaths by police attack, which will not help the government calm things down)

***

Algeria – Things are still happening, but the degree to which they are happening depends on who you talk to. According to the government, a few hundred protesters marched in the capital and a few dozen were arrested due to their unruliness. According to the protesters there were more than 10,000 protesters (a number that they later revised downwards to merely thousands) with hundreds, or possibly more than 1000 arrested.


***

Yemen – Protests have continued to grow here as well, despite accommodating gestures by the government. As long as the crowds don’t feel the need to retire at 1:30 in the afternoon for their daily qat chew this shows no signs of stopping.

***

Sorry for the brevity of this post, more analysis will come later tonight or tomorrow morning.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Iran - Green Movement remobilization on Feb. 14.

“You should not come to visit - the weather here is very bad.”

These were the words of a friend’s father when she called him at their family home in Tehran last week. When pressed for details, he would not elaborate, but simply reiterated his message. “It’s very bad. The weather is very bad.”

From all reports, the weather has been clear and chilly in Tehran - about the same as Baltimore. The “weather”, on the other hand, has been terrible.

The Iranian government has taken advantage of the world’s focus on Egypt by conducting a continual spate of jailings and executions over the past two weeks. They’ve been confiscating cell phones from reformist leaders, instituting internet controls, putting prominent opposition individuals under house arrest, and making it clear that the Feb 14 protests will be greeted with swift harsh measures.

In response some internet filter workarounds are up already, posters are going up in major cities, and many prominent individuals have already spopken out in support of the protesters, (including some who didn’t take sides in 2009).

The Iranian government doesn’t trust the military to enforce the protest bans with force, so they are going to rely much more on the police, first, then the Basij (militia thugs) and the revolutionary guard if the police can’t handle it.

This will be very different than what we saw in Egypt, and probably very different than what happened in 2009 in Iran. The protesters have seen that success against a deeply entrenched regime is possible. They have had the past year and a half to reflect on their successes and failures and devise new tactics. They also know the stakes are much higher.

The government knows this as well - they cannot afford to slowly stifle the protests until the world becomes distracted, they will have to act quickly to make sure that the green movement doesn’t build up any momentum - their own legitimacy is on the line. Like the protesters, however they too have had a year and a half to develop new strategies.

It’s already tomorrow in Iran. My hopes are prayers are with the youth of Persia.

Follow the events as they unfold at the PBS Tehran Bureau liveblog.

Muslim Brotherhood followup

As a quick followup to the piece that I wrote last week on the Muslim Brotherhood, I'd like to draw your attention to today's piece on the same topic over at arabist.net

Certainly a good bit more nuanced than mine, and a much better picture of things as they stand on the ground at this very moment.

Comments on Egypt and Algeria

No post yesterday - I needed to let it all sink in.

Three days ago I was asking the question “what now?” because Mubarak hadn’t left. today I’m asking that question again, but for the opposite reason.

What lies ahead for Egypt?

I think the important thing to recognize is that neither theocracy nor military dictatorship have much hope of succeeding at this point. This was the essential part of getting Mubarak out of the presidential palace. As long as he was able to defy the will of the Egyptian people the Egyptian people themselves were nothing. Now they’ve been successful - they are suddenly aware of their own power and acutely aware of the fact that what they accomplished was not even the full extent of their capacity. Certainly the crowds in the streets were dramatic, but they were hardly the whole of the population. Any entity that would presume to dictate to the Egyptian people must be prepared for not only their demonstrated capacity, but also their unseen potential.

The protesters faced down water cannons, tear gas, riot police, hired thugs, state propaganda, media lockdowns, and even crazy guys on camels with big sticks. It can certainly be said that they never faced down the Egyptian army itself, but it should also be pointed out that they never had the support of that same army. The Egyptian people became aware of their own capabilities by pushing beyond the what was thought to be possible, without ever reaching its boundaries.

Is it possible that the Army, confident in its capabilities and bolstered by its strengthened position of authority, will seek to establish its own status quo? Certainly.

Is it also possible that the Muslim brotherhood, sensing an opportunity, takes advantage of their own eighty year old infrastructure and mobilizes a political constituency united by the idea that faith without works is dead, transforming Egypt into a 21st-century theocratic institution? Probable, no, possible, yes.

Is it also possible that a neo-imperialist American New World order establishes a puppet state as the gatekeeper into the oil-rich Middle East? Umm… I may… for the sake of argument, let’s just say that’s another possible outcome.

What all of these scenarios have in common is this - the Egyptian people now know for a fact that they can rid themselves of a deeply entrenched 60+ year regime by going into the streets and demanding change. Although the Egyptian military, the Muslim brotherhood, and Western imperialism can certainly take advantage of the events that have taken place in the streets of cities and towns across Egypt, they certainly cannot take credit for them. And frankly, for any of them (or any other opportunist entities) to presume to seize the reins of a country that has suddenly awakened to its own potential is delusional at best.


***

So, big things are afoot.

(A foot? Why are big things afoot rather than at hand? I don’t know - don’t ask questions like that.)

Everybody says, “What’s next?”

Well. I’m glad you asked.

I am a pragmatic optimist at heart, . I think things are getting better, but I’m not stupid about it. Some time ago during a conversation over potential outcomes of the 2009 Iranian election protests, a skeptical mathematician friend of mine dismissed my perspective with a wave and a grunt. “You always think the glass is half full.”

“No, Elmar,” I replied, “it’s all a matter of whether the glass is being filled or being emptied.”

So is the glass being filled or emptied?

Think about that for a minute, in the meantime I will turn our attention to the highlight of the weekend: Algeria.

***

Algeria - February 12 was the scheduled “day of rage/protest” for Algeria.

So what’s been happening in Algeria?

Protests

In fact, the protests were bigger than expected by most. Hundreds, or even thousands of people were arrested. Thousands, and possibly tens of thousands were in the streets. Algeria is not Egypt, of course. Population-wise it is much smaller, despite its geographic size.

So. Protests In Algeria. What’s the outlook?

Well, as a self-proclaimed “pragmatic optimist” I have to say it doesn’t look good.

Algeria is a fascinating and beautiful country with a long and storied history. It’s very close to the top of the list of countries that I would absolutely love to go to Right. Now.

Anyway, the Algerians have had a hell of a time struggling for independence. In the early 90s they actually were able to hold democratic elections, but the establishment was uncomfortable with the projected gains that the Algerian Islamist parties were making, and so halfway through the electoral process the whole thing was suspended and the government declared a state of emergency. This kicked off a rather brutal civil war that saw several disenfranchised Islamic groups engaged in violent terrorists attacks against the established government and vicious retaliations by the military against the Islamists with the civilian population caught in the middle and paying a horrible price.

(Sidenote - I highly recommend Star of Algiers, a great piece of fiction about an aspiring Algerian pop star in the early 1990's.)

This unpleasant and protracted civil war finally found its resolution after 9/11 when the Bush administration started to give gazillions of dollars to any government that was willing to spend the money fighting Islamic terrorists.

In light of that useful cash windfall, the Algerian government (with the full and hearty support of America’s overseas counter-terrorist intelligence network) was able to pretty effectively destroy viable elements of a very unpleasant and ruthless domestic movement (largely by doing unpleasant and ruthless things).

The GSPC (a French acronym for the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) decided that the Algerian alliance with America’s antiterrorist program was a clear call to ratchet up their own game up as well, and so they declared themselves to be an affiliate of Al Qaeda and renamed themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib* (AQIM).

*“Maghrib” is an Arabic word meaning “Where the sun sets” - it refers to North Africa west of Egypt.

Regardless, the Algerian government has been a potent weapon of stagnation when it comes to liberty and democracy in Algeria. Although AQIM is a rather weak organization at this point, conservative Islam is much more deeply entrenched in the common culture of Algeria
than it is in Egypt. I am skeptical (to the point of dismissiveness) when it comes to the potential for an Islamic revival in Egypt, I am much more concerned with the opportunity for a fundamentalist rise to power in Algeria.

Anyway. After all of that, all I’m trying to say is that the protests in Algeria are, in some ways, much more serious than those we saw in Egypt.

“Why?” You might ask.

Well, I’m glad you asked.

The Algerian army has been hard at work battling domestic terrorism for the past two decades. The Egyptian army hasn’t had to engage in combat activity since the early 70s. Here’s the crux - the Algerian army is the fist of the Algerian government. The Egyptian army never had that role.

What we see today in the streets of Cairo is people cleaning up trash. If such a thing were to happen in Algeria, they would be cleaning up bodies.

I know it’s grim, but I suspect that the Algerians are going to have to walk through a lot more ugliness than the Egyptians had to if they want to see Boutiflaka ousted.

Friday, February 11, 2011

WOOOHOOOO!

Someone finally got the message!

What now, Egypt?

All day yesterday there was talk of Mubarak’s big announcement in the evening. The Egyptian military, the media, the us government, opposition leaders, everyone “in the know” was grinning and nudging everyone else saying, “ooo. Big announcement tonight! Not gonna say what, but it should be good.” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).


The speech was infuriating. It was the exact opposite of what people wanted to hear. Mubarak isn’t going anywhere.  What a jerk. For a close analysis of what this means, I’ll just quote longtime Egyptian blogger sandmonkey:





So what does this mean? What next?

The crowd was pretty pissed last night, but if Mubarak was trying to trigger a mass act of violence to force the hand of the army he was unsuccessful. Groups of protesters went to the national TV station and the presidential palace to do some angry chanting, but the majority of the crowd went home. Friday, after prayers, we will see the true response.

There is other strangeness afoot. The army (who seemed to be pressuring Mubarak to step down) issued a cryptic message to the Egyptian people entitled “Communique Number One” last night. The content of the message was unremarkable, but the ramifications are pretty substantial – “Communique number one” is traditionally (in 20th century middle east history) the military’s first address to the people of a country after they seize power in a coup. Have they? Apparently Mubarak  doesn’t think so.

A few notes on the Egyptian military – The middle east institute has a good policy insight piece that will certainly help you better understand their unique position in Egyptian society. However, the paper’s overall positive attitude towards the army should be tempered with some unsettling reports that have recently surfaced regarding mass arrests of protesters and violence (lethal violence, even) being wielded against protestors. This may just be the work of Mubarak loyalists within the army ranks, but it is nonetheless a foreboding  indicator of internal divisions within the army.

So, with multiple factions potentially moving in the streets this evening, I await tonight's reports from Egypt with trepidation. We are, it seems, moving closer to both my best-case and worse-case scenarios.


*** 

Last minute update (I’m sure this will be a day of significant news, but I want to get this up so I can get on with my work)

Mubarak has relocated to an undisclosed location (possibly out of country) but the council of military chiefs have agreed to back Mubarak’s declaration to stay in office.

Final analysis: Bleh.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Valentines Day may not be a day of love for Iran


Friday is the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, and some pretty big things may be coming down the pipeline from there over the next few days, so I’ll be shifting my focus a bit farther east to Iran for the next few posts (but I’ll try to keep you abreast of other events).

The situation in Tunisia and Egypt has placed the Iranian government in a rather awkward position. Although the religious and political leaders of Iran would like to salute the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings as a continuation of the 1979 revolution that drove the Shah out of Iran. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t really all that believable of a narrative. The events in the ground are far more reminiscent of the technology-assisted Green Movement protests that took place in the larger Iranian cities after the stolen 2009 election. In fact, there are many who argue that the 2009 protests served as a direct inspiration for the protesters in Egypt.

For myself, the connection is a more immediate one. When the protests in Iran started, facebook, twitter, youtube, flickr, email, news aggregation sites like fark.com, and online message boards were the best way to follow what was going on. The major news agencies didn’t cover the protests until the third or fourth day when hundreds of thousands of protesters had already filled the streets. The protests created thousands of windows into the streets of Tehran, and my internet skills, honed by two decades of messing around with computers and new communications media were suddenly good for something other than looking at pictures of cats with silly captions. (My academic, personal, and professional familiarity with the Middle East didn’t hurt either).

A few days ago, several people from the green movement requested a permit to have a rally in support of the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt on February 14. This puts the Iranian government in a rather awkward spot. If they allow the rally it gives the Green Movement an opportunity show that it is still viable, strong, and legitimate, but if they deny the permit it undermines their state-propagated line about how great the North African protests are. Predictably, the government has tried to link their support for the Egypt/Tunisia protests to tomorrow’s commemorations of the 1979 revolution, and denounced the Feb 14 rally as disruptive grandstanding. The Feb. 14 protests will probably take place anyway, but the degree to which they serve as a flash-point for reviving the 2009 Green Movement protests remains to be seen.  I think the regime is scared enough that they may respond with extreme violence. (Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi has been put under house arrest in anticipation of the Monday rally)

***

February 14 will also be a big day for Bahrain, with a day of protest on the calendar. Bahrain is a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf that is ruled by a Sunni royal family, but has a population that is 2/3 Shi’a. The history of the island is interesting – At one time it was the home of a radical sect of Ismailis known as the Qarmatians who,  in 840AD sacked the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and even went so far as to steal the black stone from the Kaaba (It was returned two decades later broken into several pieces). As things stand, no one is quite sure what Monday's protests will look like. A unified Bahraini populace could probably topple the ruling family, but if the citizenry fragments along sectarian lines it’ll be a mess.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mubarak, the fat lady is singing.

The protests were even bigger yesterday, and now this...

Stick a fork in him...Mubarak is done.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some non-Egypt highlights.

 I know that I’ve complained on more than one occasion that Egypt seems to suck up the available news oxygen, but I myself am part of that – so much of what I’ve been writing about has been Egypt-oriented.
Today I want to step back and draw your attention to some of the events that inspired me to start writing this blog*, particularly Sudan and Lebanon.


***

Sudan - The Sudanese civil war has taken the lives of more than two million people over the past 20 years. Communicating a number that big is almost impossible. Human beings don’t really understand large numbers. Two million people – that’s almost the entire population of Dallas.

That war is finally over. As of yesterday, Omar al-Bashir, the dictator of Sudan has put his stamp of approval on the separation of north and south Sudan. As inspiring as the events of Tunisia and Egypt are, the ramifications of this are overwhelming to me. As excited as I was to hear that the initial vote had been successful (only a month has passed since then – it seems like so long ago) that moment is approaching its completion. Secession will take place on July 9, finally undoing a cruel twist of colonial cartography.

Our thoughts and prayers should be with both north and south Sudan as the first new country of the 21st century steps out on its own.

***

Lebanon– Chaos may be returning to Beirut soon. The tribunal on the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri held its first hearing yesterday and will be publishing indictments in a matter of a week or two. This puts them way ahead of schedule, and means that several Hezbollah leaders may be named before they can resolve the current political confusion. Hezbollah was hoping that these revelations wouldn’t come to light for several more months (or never). Their power play may be less successful than initially thought, with rather violent results. I’ll try to keep you posted on that, but Lebanese politics is a rather convoluted and byzantine tangle that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

***

My other main update concerns Libya – someday I’ll do a nice full piece on Libya, an unappreciated jewel of the Mediterranean that has been repeatedly robbed of its potential. Ghaddafi has always been a fascinating individual to me - to steal a description from HST he’s, “A high powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die.” He’s written a fantastic book of short stories that I HIGHLY recommend. If he hadn’t gotten so hung up on Nasserism and being a dictator he could have been a great political philosopher. His “green book”, though kind of a mess, is a masterpiece of revolutionary fervor – he’s willing to pull apart and reassemble very big ideas like capitalism, socialism and political Islam to see what might work.  Regardless, he is still a ruthless dictator and an obstacle to the freedom of four million people.


Rather than a complete piece (I’m on my way to work and short on time), I’ll just draw your attention to a letter written to Ghaddafi by a young Libyan man. There is no blog that I can write that would capture the frustration of the Libyans on the street as well as this.

***

Bahrain – I haven’t mentioned Bahrain yet in any of my posts, but it deserves attention. I put Bahrain in the same category as Tunisia. The sort of country everyone forgets about until something unprecedented happens there. I’ll talk more about it later, but Bahrain is a wild card right now. Suffice it to say, if the political upheaval of North Africa is going to spread to the oil-rich Gulf States it’ll start in Bahrain.

***

Egypt – I know this wasn’t supposed to be about Egypt, but I did want to point out one rather major event: The state controlled media has begun to turn against Mubarak.

***

This Blog - Last night this blog reached the 1000 visitor mark, an exciting benchmark for me. I’m averaging about 100 a day, and I’m hoping to keep that up, so tell your friends to tune in and I’ll do my best to keep regular updates and analysis coming. These are the top ten reader locations: 

United States
Israel
United Kingdom
Canada
Germany
Egypt
Singapore
Netherlands
India
Australia

I’ve also gotten readers from Mexico, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, India, Libya, and the Sudan. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Suspicious letters from Cairo.

Friday morning a strange letter from Cairo was forwarded to my e-mail.  It was an account by an Egyptian man named Rafiq, and it was accompanied by a second version of the same letter in Arabic. The letter gave a fascinating account of the Cairo protests that were dramatically (and suspiciously) different than the ones that I've been following for  the past two weeks. In particular, he shares some descriptions of a pro-Mubarak rally in Cairo. I've excerpted a key portion of the letter here (the ALL CAPS are from the original letter)my own commentary follows:

***

We decided to take to the streets to voice our opinion. On Tuesday February 1st we went to Mustafa Mahmoud square in Mohandessin. There were about one thousand people there around 3:30 pm. (Yes, we broke the curfew.) The crowd grew to about 2,500 by 5:00 p.m. People were calling their friends over the phone telling them to come. We left at about 6:30 p.m. and returned yesterday, Wednesday, starting at 11:00 a.m. The small group had swelled to TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE standing together with banners saying things like:


- yes to stability, yes to Mubarak
- give change a chance
- we are sorry Mr. president
- we accept dialogue, we trust you
- no to ElBaradei, no to the muslim brotherhood (many like this one)
- we are the Egyptians, where is Al-Jazeera, let them come and see
- no to corruption, no to vandalism
- we got what we asked the president for, so why are people still in Tahrir?  Who are they? What do they want?
etc., etc., etc.


By 2:00 p.m., the crowd had grown to SEVERAL HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE, maybe up to a million, stretching from Sphinx square to Sudan street. We had a great sense of unity and victory. We met with people who were in the original protest in Tahrir square who decided to join us saying: we got what we asked for, and now we accept Mubarak's changes and proposals.”
We left around 4:15 p.m. The numbers had grown even more, POSSIBLY OVER A MILLION. As we drove home we saw the same slogans on banners all over the city, on cars, on walls, on shop windows. We learned that similar demonstrations are taking place ALL OVER THE COUNTRY, IN MAY DIFFERENT CITIES. THIS IS THE CRY OF THE PEOPLE OF EGYPT THAT IS BEING TOTALLY IGNORED BY THE INTERNATIONAL NEWS MEDIA. Is this on purpose??!!! I am perplexed!!!


I am wondering: How come CNN, the BBC, and others are reporting ONLY the anti-government protests as the voice of the people? This is not JUSTICE, this is not TRUTH. There have been reports that these people are being paid by the government.  NOT TRUE! I was there with many, many others. I SAW THE STREETS.


Now to the situation in Tahrir square. Only a few people (hundreds?) are still there from the original protesters. They have been slowly replaced by other HIGHLY ORGANIZED GROUPS. They all have the same model of cell phones. They all have the same blankets (eye witnesses). THESE ARE NOT THE PEOPLE OF EGYPT.
Some witnesses claim that they don't look Egyptians, and don't sound Egyptians (different accent, different dialect). THIS IS A BIG ORGANIZED COUP TO TRY TO CONVINCE THE WORLD THROUGH THE MEDIA THAT EGYPT WANTS MUBARAK TO GO, AND THE MEDIA IS PART OF THE DECEPTION. People in Tahrir square are escalating the situation on purpose to topple President Mubarak FOR THEIR OWN HIDDEN AGENDAS. This is TYPICAL OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERS, AND EVERYBODY IN THE STREETS OF CAIRO KNOWS THIS. We heard people on the streets saying that the plot to take over the country is now clear.

THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW THIS. The escalation of violence in Tahrir square is because of this. Egyptians who love Egypt, the millions that took to the streets yesterday, want this to end. They fully understand that President Mubarak is between a rock and a hard place, that he cannot quench the unrest in Tahrir through the army, so the people want to go to Tahrir to disperse the crowds there by themselves. People in Tahrir are vastly outnumbered. If Egyptians go the Tahrir square to take control of the situation, more chaos will erupt, giving a chance to the international media to blame the president even more.


***

The letter had been forwarded through multiple parties, most recently through Christians doing outreach work in Israel, so I asked the sender about its origins. She sent a few e-mails asking for more information from the people that sent the e-mail on to her, but little clarification emerged.

Yesterday I was busy with other things and so I was unable to follow-up on this, but today I looked a little more deeply.  As I suspect, this letter has been making the rounds in certain circles and was recently posted in its entirety (along with two follow-up letters) on the website of the prominent Christian publication Charisma Magazine under the heading "Eyewitness Report: What the Mainstream Media Won't Tell You About Egypt Crisis"

I encourage you to read the letter in its entirety, as it contrasts starkly with everything that I've been saying here.  It also contrasts starkly with everything that has been printed in the international press (BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN).  It also contrasts starkly with everything that's been coming out of the country through other channels like twitter, YouTube, Flickr, facebook, blogs, phone conversations, text messages, and the small pieces of paper tied to the legs of homing pigeons.

In fact, the only thing that Rafik's descriptions match are the messages produced and disseminated by Egyptian state media.  (By the way, if this is the Rafik who I think it is, he also works for the Egyptian Ministry of Communications). It was as though I was receiving strange news from an alternate universe where an otherwise identical Cairo was experiencing an entirely different sort of disruption.

It is important to remember that what those of us who are observing from outside of Egypt have been seeing is dramatically different than the news inside the country. The government has choked or entirely suppressed nonstate media and electronic communication repeatedly over the past week, sometimes going as far as to shut off the Internet altogether.

As of two days ago, it has largely come back online.

 
People were able to get messages out through creative applications of technology, but the information flow into the country has been severely restricted as well.

(Evidence of state violence during the government imposed media blackout can be found here.  Warning: this is graphic and disturbing material and I do not recommend that you watch unless you still believe that the pro-Mubarak forces are the good guys.)

I saw this happen in 2009 after the Iranian elections as well.  The state took dramatic measures to restrict communication into and out of the country, and attempted to limit the narrative internally and externally while working hard to discredit the protests in the street as the work of foreign machinations (Israel and the US are the two traditional targets).

Heather Keany, an AUC professor living in Cairo has written an excellent piece of analysis on the media war over how the events in Egypt are percieved (thanks to Marilyn for the link).

"Facebookers and upper and middle class folk who know English and have satellite dishes watch CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera English & Arabic. For everyone else, after the government shut down Al Jazeera Arabic here, unless they watched BBC Arabic they are very likely watching state news. The result is two very different presentations of what is happening."

The impact of this can be painfully seen in the paranoia and confusion that the inhabitants of Egypt are experiencing right now.  One of the most touching and stark portraits of street-level Cairo can be read
over at Arabist.net, where journalist Abu Ray describes his arrival home from a 10 day trip to Asia.  "I had left Cairo and come home to Baghdad."

(I wonder if this is also a reference to a poem by Rumi called “In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad”)

Speaking of dreams...