A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Editors for Al-Ahram, Rose al-Youssef, Other State Press

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has named new editors and other key administrators at the state-run flagship Al-Ahram, the influential opinion weekly Rose al-Youssef (once a satirical magazine known for its biting cartoons, lately a sycophantic tool of the regime) and some other state-run publications. In thre case of both Al-Ahram and Rose al-Youssef, the journalists on the staff had already revolted against the Mubarak-era editors. Sharaf moved while many of the young revolutionaries were planning to demand such changes this coming Friday.

Amr Hamzawy Forming New Party

More Egypt: the Carnegie Endowment's man in Beirut, Amr Hamzawy, who with Michele Dunne in Washington has made Carnegie a go-to place for Egypt, has been back in Cairo since the revolution and has now announced the formation of a new Egyptian Liberal Democratic Party.

Sometimes Think Tank democracy activists go beyond just Thinking.

Politics is breaking out in Egypt. Again, I'm not seeking to overemphasize Egypt, but a whole lot of stuff is happening there, as the revolution starts to feel its way forward, sometimes with and sometimes independent of the Army. And most of the world isn't noticing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Musa Kusa

The decamping to Britain of Libyan Foreign Minister and longtime Qadhafi loyalist Musa Kusa is a blow to the regime, despite its considerable successes on the battlefield. And Al Jazeera is saying that several other key officials are trying to make their exit.

Of course, the loss yet again of Ras Lanuf and Brega by the rebels will somewhat diminish their joy at Kusa's defection. But however triumphant Qadhafi may be feeling must also be tempered (if he's capable of tempered emotion) by the close aides who have bailed on him.

(Oh, yes, he apparently can't find a Libyan to be Libya's Ambassador to the UN, so he's named a Nicaraguan Sandinista.)

Oh, yes: Miguel d'Escoto is a former Maryknoll Catholic priest. Obviously the right choice for Libya's UN Ambassador. No wonder the Foreign Minister defected.

If it weren't for the horrific bloodshed and rapes, it would be ludicrous.

Israel and Asad

Salman Masalha in Ha'aretz: "Israel's Favorite Arab Dictator of All is Asad". It's a curious truth, one that Israel's staunch supporter Joe Lieberman didn't seem to get when he recently suggested imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. It's no secret that the Israelis were unhappy to see Mubarak go, but he at least had a peace treaty. The situation with Asad is more complicated, in part preferring to stick with "the devil they know," and in part I suspect the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Sunni movement would be more confrontational than the longstanding ‘Alawite regime.

Egypt Gets a "Constitutional Declaration"

If I'm blogging a lot about Egypt, it's because much is happening there; it's being overshadowed in the media by Libya and Syria, but it's worthy of note.

Today the Armed Forces Council announced that Presidential elections will be held by November, a couple of months after the Parliamentary elections due in September. It also issued its anticipated butr delayed Constitutional Declaration. This turned out to be not just an embodiment of the recently passed referendum, but rather a 62-article interim constitution, to see the country through elections, after which a new permanent constitution will be drafted. The Arabic text can be found here; as usual the Armed Forces Council posted it to their Facebook page. If I find an English text I'll link to it.

It reduces the power of the appointed upper house, the Shura Council, and makes the various changes approved in the referendum, but it keeps masny aspects of the 1971 constitution, including the provision that half of he lower house consist of workers and farmers, a relic of the socialist ideology of the Nasser era.

A Military Candidate for President of Egypt

From the beginning of Egypt's Higher Armed Forces Council taking the helm of state, they have insisted over and over that the Army will not run a candidate in forthcoming Presidential elections. It has been a mantra from the moment Mubarak left: the Army has no interest in power itself, it is the guardian of the transition.

Retired military men, however, are not excluded from running, and now retired General Magdi Hatata, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces until 2001, has announced plans to run for President.

Hatata was once Commander of the Republican Guard, served as Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army until 2001, and became head of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, part of Egypt's military industries. As Chief of Staff he had good relations with the US, and many in the US military considered him far superior to his Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Tantawi (now Egypt's effective head of state). Whether Hatata has a following outside the Armed Forces, however, is far from clear.

Some in the US were promoting Gen. Sami Enan, the current Chief of Staff, until the Armed Forces Council said none of its members would run. Hatata, much admired in the US, may satisfy some of those enthusiasts. (No one sees Tantawi as a serious candidate.) But whether the Tahrir revolutionaries even know who he is is far from clear.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Egypt's Grassy Knoll: Reopening the Sadat Assassination?

The Middle East is somewhat notorious for its fondness for conspiracy theories (the "Byzantine" part of "Byzantine plot," of course, is from the region). Perhaps it was inevitable that, nearly 30 years after the event, the Anwar Sadat assassination that made Husni Mubarak President would be a subject of debate after Mubarak's fall. Zeinobia rounds up some of the recent claims and allegations (her post is in English but many of her embedded TV clips are in Arabic). Lately various members of the Sadat family have been reviving old rumors, and the release of long-imprisoned conspirator ‘Abboud al-Zumur, who has hinted at conspiracies beyond those arrested, has sparked new speculation suggesting Mubarak somehow was involved, or was at least aware of the plot.

Personally, I'll take a lot more convincing. Most versions of some sort of top level plot involve both Mubarak (who despite being next to Sadat got a minor finger wound) and then-Defense Minister Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (who had a bullet through his uniform hat but wasn't even grazed). Mubarak, after years of depending on him, fired Abu Ghazala in 1989 and he was later disgraced in a sex scandal his friends thought was trumped up by State Security; he died a couple of years ago or so. I think if he had knowledge of a plot involving Mubarak and himself he'd have taken more people down with him. The old cui bono or "who benefits?" suspicion has led to theories that Andrew Johnson was involved in Lincoln's assassination or Lyndon Johnson in JFK's, and absent any actual evidence I think the rumors about Mubarak are just paranoid speculation. But read Zeinobia's piece anyway, especially if you can watch the videos in Arabic.

Personal note for full disclosure: I was in Cairo just a couple of weeks after the assassination and interviewed Abu Ghazala on that visit and on other occasions, so I may have some biases.

Lost Causes 101: A Gamal Mubarak Candidacy?

Supporters of Gamal Mubarak are organizing to promote him as a candidate for the Egyptian Presidency.

Outside his circle of young, nouveaux riches businessmen, there was never much evidence of popular support for Gamal. Of course, in those days "one man, one vote" meant one man (Gamal's father) had the only vote. Now that there's a broader field in play, I think Gamal has more to worry about from having his bank accounts investigated than running a campaign.

Will March be the Month of No Resignations?

Yemen's ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih looked close to an exit late last week; on Friday even some of his own Cabinet were talking about him being gone in a day or two. Now he's hanging tough once again, insisting 95% of the people support him and that it's the other 5% who should leave. He has a track record of promising not to run again and then doing so, which is why his promise to quit by the end of the year did not impress the opposition.

If Salih hangs on, it suggests we will not see an autocrat departing office in March, having gotten used to the revolution-of-the-month, with Ben Ali in January and Mubarak in February. Of course, the speed with which upheaval has spread is still extraordinary by any historical standard. But Qadhafi is hanging on (regaining ground again today), while Bahrain has plugged its volcano for the time being, with Saudi support. It's still early days in Syria. I would expect there to be more leaders toppled from power in coming weeks and months, but it's unlikely to be universal, and there will be those who are able to reform ahead of the tsunami. I do think Qadhafi will not now recover full power, and that Salih has already lost it in Yemen but is in denial; but I've learned not to make predictions about this amazing time, when so few of the old rules apply. Like the Red Queen, I've learned to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Obama's Speech: First Take

Some initial thoughts on the President's speech [If you haven't seen it, transcript here; embedded video at end of this post.]:
  • While I'm sure the domestic debate will continue, I think it was a good speech in its attempt to say this is an international commitment; the goal is to get rid of Qadhafi but it isn't our military mission, which is winding down.
  • US interests and values were emphasized up front; regional concerns at the end. We can't bear the brunt alone. Perhaps a bit of overemphasis that it's NATO's issue now. NATO has decided to add protection of civilians to the military mission, not us. Last time I looked, we're a member of NATO.
  • Only a 30 minute speech (some say because ABC didn't want to preempt Dancing with the Stars): why from NDU rather than the Oval Office? Probably to assist military credibility.
  • I noted with interest that he said we had to act quickly to prevent the fall of Benghazi, a city of 700,000, "a city nearly the size of Charlotte." Why the choice of Charlotte? It' s a nice city, the banking capital of the South, but other cities in the 700,000 range include Fort Worth, Detroit, El Paso, Memphis, Baltimore, Boston . . . Do you suppose this could have anything to do with the 2012 Democratic Party Convention being in Charlotte? Surely just a coincidence.
Here's the video:

I'll Comment After Obama Speaks

President Obama is speaking at 7:30 to explain the Libyan operation to the American people. I'll post initial comments soon after he speaks.

Also, if I have any quick takes during, I'll post to the #MiddleEastInst Twitter feed. I'll sign mine MCD in case others are also tweeting it at MEI.

Qatar Recognizes the Libyan Rebels

Qatar, so far the only Arab country patrolling the Libyan no-fly zone, has become the first Arab country to recognize the Libyan rebel council as the sole representative of the Libyan people. Qatar will also assist in marketing oil from eastern Libya.

Qatar has always pursued a maverick and distinct foreign policy in the Arab world, and this is in keeping with that.

Egypt: Parliamentary Vote in September; Emergency to be Lifted by Then

Earlier plans to move quickly in Egypt on both Parliamentary and Presidential elections, which had led to concerns by some new parties that there would be insufficient time to organize, thus favoring existing parties and the Muslim Brotherhood (and leading to rumored US pressure not to rush), has been somewhat alleviated by an announcement today that while Parliamentary elections will be held in September (and the State of Emergency will be lifted before the elections), the date for Presidential elections has not yet been set,

The Military Council has announced that it is investigating the events surrounding the breakup of the Tahrir encampment (including the treatment of women), and that a declaration on the Constitution as amended by the recent referendum will be issued within days. (There has been speculation about why it hasn't been issued yet.)

The Army spokesmen denied reports that Husni Mubarak is being treated in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, and said he is under house arrest in Egypt. [Later clarified as "forced residency in Egypt," rather than "house arrest."]

Rogue's Gallery II: Now Brought to You by Google

You may recall how Flickr (which is owned by Yahoo) took down the photo gallery of Egyptian State Security officers put up by Hossam al-Hamalawy.

Well, as I expected, they're back, but this time they're on Picasa, which is owned by Google. Also, here's a New York Times piece on the subject.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Can the Ophthamologist Read the Handwriting on the Wall?

Via the Enduring America Blog. The graffiti in Syria reads "Your turn has come, Doctor." (The al-Dur/Ya Duktur rhyme in Arabic makes it catchy.)

Bashar al-Asad is a Doctor of Ophthamology and practiced in London before his brother Basil died and he returned to Syria to become heir to the throne Presidency.

Troubles Everywhere

So much is happening today — right now I count demonstrations or major clashes in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt, and the ongoing conflict in Libya — that rather than try to comment now I'm going to let the day play out and then sum it up.

So That's What I've Got

Middle East Revolt Fatigue Syndrome. Read the symptoms. Recognizing your illness is the first step to recovery. Perhaps we need a twelve-step program. Hat tip to Amy Hawthorne via Facebook.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Moment for Outrage: Abuse of Women in Egyptian Custody

The Egyptian Armed Forces Council, now ruling the country, portrays itself as the protector of the Revolution, and is still held in high esteem by many of the young people who made the Revolution. I have known a great many Egyptian senior officers, and have generally admired them more than their counterparts in the political realm. But in addition to its tin ear on the referendum and earlier crackdown on the encampment in Tahrir, we now have a profoundly disturbing accusation. Amnesty International says it has testimony that women arrested in the March 9 crackdown in Tahrir were subjected to strip searches (by women but within the sight of males) and "virginity tests," the latter an invasive examination by a man in a lab coat, accompanied by the threat that those found not to be virgins might be charged with prostitution. One woman who insisted she was a virgin but whose test allegedly "proved" otherwise (suggesting the man in the lab coat was no doctor) was reportedly beaten. The exact nature of these "virginity tests" is not spelled out. I cannot, however, imagine anything that doesn't border on criminal sexual abuse.

This was picked up today by many Western and some Egyptian press outlets, but all you really need to read is the Amnesty report linked above.

Words fail me. Well, not really, but since this is MEI's blog and not my personal pulpit I try to keep it PG-13 at worst, so I can't use the words that come to mind.

If this is true, and Amnesty isn't known for fabricating atrocities, it is a crime and if carried out under the auspices of the Army, a blot on the honor of the Army and of the state it currently represents. The Army denies it, but if anyone in uniform was involved in this, the Armed Forces Council should punish them severely. The honor of a great country and the honor of the uniform demand it.

WSJ: Both Salih and Muhsin to Step Aside?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Yemeni President Salih and his kinsman/ally/now rival General ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, have negotiated a deal under which both men would step down and transfer power to a civilian transitional council. The report, not confirmed elsewhere as far as I know (officially, Salih is still offering to step down at the end of the year) suggests the deal might be in place as early as Saturday.

We'll see. Salih is known for changing his mind, and this is so far just one press report. But if tomorrow comes anywhere near last Friday in the violence of the protests, things might happen faster.

Syria Pledges Reforms after Deraa

Amid a flurry of reports suggesting the number killed in Deraa in the last few days may be much higher than the 15 or so generally reported (with some estimates in the hundreds), the Syrian government has announced that it is studying a number of reforms, including lifting the Emergency law, permitting the licensing of political parties, freeing the press, and raising salaries, and that President Asad has ordered security services not to open fire on protesters. Also, public sector employees will be given a raise and health insurance.

This shows that the regime is worried; the question is whether by offering concessions early (as has also been done by the Kings of Jordan and Morocco and the Sultan in Oman), they can blunt the force of the protests, or whether the rising fury over the deaths in Deraa (now said to include some young children) may have ignited a flame that will be hard to extinguish.

Tomorrow has been declared a day of rage in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere. Another critical Friday approaches. Salih in Yemen may be on his final glidepath I suspect, while Syria could be jusat taking off.

French Said to Strike Sabha

The coalition, in this case apparently France, has reportedly struck the airfield in Sebha Oasis, well into the Libyan Sahara. Sabha, with longtime links to Qadhafi and site of a major airfield said to be where the sub-Saharan African mercenaries Qadhafi recruited entered the country, would appear to be the deepest strikes so far, with the rest of trhe4 action confined to Mediterranean Libya.

While in-flight refueling makes range somewhat irrelevant, it did cross my mind to wonder if the French were operating from the Mediterranean (the carrier Charles de Gaulle is now in the theater) or from someplace like Chad.

Landis on Deraa

Here's Josh Landis on events in Deraa. He worries that it's taking on sectarian aspects, with the protesters turning anti-‘Alawite and the government portraying them as they once did the Muslim Brotherhood. Not all his contributors agree, and there's a big collection of news stories and links.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Syria: It Isn't 1982 Any More

In 1982 an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama was crushed ruthlessly by the regime of Hafiz al-Asad, in one of the bloodiest repressions of an Arab revolt by its own government in modern times. Estimates of the dead range from 10,000 upward. Only Saddam Hussein's Operation Anfal in Kurdistan, or perhaps Qadhafi's current campaign in Libya, may rival it as a mass killing of a people by their own government. But outrage was limited at the time because the details and scale were slow to leak out.

Though the number of dead in Deraa last night is in no way comparable (somewhere between five and a few dozen depending on the account); what is clear is that the Syrian Army entered the ancient Omari Mosque (its foundations dating to the Islamic conquest and the Caliph Omar, and the present mosque dating from the 12th Century, shown at left), which had become a refuge of protesters. [Oops: I'm told that's the mosque in Busra (Bostra). It came from a Syrian tourist site.] The attack was tweeted to the world live, and YouTube videos have been appearing since the beginning of the ferment in Deraa, an ancient city, the Edrei of the Old Testament, and close to the Jordanian border. It isn't 1982 any more, and the world really is watching, though the ruthlessness of 1982 may still linger inside the present Syrian government.

What many will see as the profanation of an ancient Mosque is likely to add to the outrage. Some reports say the government of Deraa has been fired, but once again we have seen an Arab government crack down hard, thus fueling anger and frustration.

If they'd just let Mohammed Bouazizi sell his vegetables in peace, autocrats and crowned heads might sleep more soundly today.

Bombing in Jerusalem

A bomb has gone off near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, killing one person and injuring many. There has been an escalation of violence since Saturday, when 50 mortar rounds were fired from Gaza into Israel, followed by Israeli strikes on Gaza.

The quid pro quo cycle is sadly familiar and perhaps inescapable;I do wonder if this is some way linked with Mahmoud ‘Abbas announce willingness to go to Gaza to meet with Isma‘il Haniyya about settling the Fatah-Hamas split. At first glance it may seem odd to strike Israel to abort a Palestinian reconciliation, but in the calculus of this conflict, it could produce such a result.

Zombie NDP Party Still Around

Egypt's National Democratic Party, despite its main headquarters being burned in the revolution and many of its members bailing out, is not dead yet, or perhaps it just hasn't noticed. Al-Ahram Online on the survival of the NDP.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Syria: Omari Mosque in Deraa Raided by Army?

Right now the growing protests in Syria are centered in the southern city of Deraa, where several died the other day and protests have been growing. Tonight (actually about 1:30 am Syrian time), twitter posts are claiming the Syrian Army has attacked the ancient Omari Mosque in the city, with at least five more dead and many injured. The mosque had been a rallying point and improvised hospital for the protesters.

I still think that Syria will be much harder to shake than Tunisia or Egypt. But if the Syrians start to get really rough, Deraa could be the next Sidi Bouzid.

Yemen: Suspicion of Gen. Muhsin's Motives

At first glance, yesterday's announcement by powerful Yemeni General ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar that he was breaking with President Salih and pledging that hs troops would protect the protesters looked like it might be the coup de grace for Salih, as it still very well may prove to be. But a lot of veteran Yemen-watchers are highly suspicious of General Muhsin's motives. Sometimes called the second most powerful man in the country, he may well be maneuvering to make sure he lands on the winning side in a post-Salih Yemen, but not necessarily by supporting the protesters. The Arabist collects some of the commentary. including posts by Greg Johnsen and Brian Whitaker. Clearly, Muhsin's move isn't good news for Salih, but it may not be good news for the protesters either, since Muhsin may be trying to protect the interests of the Sanhan tribe beyond Salih's own immediate entourage (the sons and nephews who are still loyal), as well as assure the survival of the Army leadership. It sounds as if those seeking real change in Yemen might be well-advised to steer clear of their newest "ally."

Another interesting point is Whitaker's suggestion that Saudi Arabia may either be trying to keep Salih in power or broker a soft landing when he departs, in order to prevent the emergence of a more radical regime to their south. While the US has urged peaceful change, its reliance on Salih as an ally against al-Qa‘ida has kept it from openly urging him to leave. I'm no Yemen expert, but this is seeming more and more like a fin du regime week there.

Yet another fire in Cairo

Readers may recall that there have been a couple of suspicious fires in Cairo lately, which some have hinted may be aimed at destroying documents. Well, there's another fire today at the Interior Ministry, apparently started by protesting policemen and cadets. Make of it what you will.

Libya: Tactical Successes but Strategic Muddle

Strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise of defeat.
— Sun Tzu

Several days into the operations against Libya, the coalition seems to be fraying around the edges. The Arab League, whose call for a no-fly zone became the rhetorical underpinning of the US case so far, has flinched at the actual implications of implementation. NATO is divided with Turkey staunchly opposing any NATO role. President Barack Obama's statement yesterday that the US would hand off command of overall operations within "days, not weeks" left open the question of who would take control, and confusion about command seems to be causing some wavering among coalition members. Much of what I'm going to say here has been said before by others, but I want to chip in my two cents worth.

Some of the criticism in the US Congress is just politics as usual, but some stems from a legitimate concern about strategic goals and endgames and exit strategies. No one wants classic "mission creep" as in Beirut 1982-83 or Somalia 1993. But no one wants another Rwanda either, where the West stands by as genocide happens. The problem here, I think, is that the real danger that Benghazi was about to fall over the weekend forced the opening of hostilities: it was a "don't just stand there, do something!" kind of crisis, without the luxury of full strategic planning. Now such niceties as figuring out the strategic objective need to be addressed, though they may divide the ad hoc coalition.

To quote another well-known theorist:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
— Karl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579
The immediate political purpose in this case was to prevent a genocidal attack by Qadhafi on his own people from turning into a humanitarian nightmare. The tactical objective of a no-fly zone seems to be almost if not completely achieved. But the operational objective of which Clausewitz speaks and the strategic endgame are still works in progress.

The US, for obvious diplomatic reasons, continues to say that Qadhafi should leave, but does not define that as its strategic goal since it is not authorized under UNSC Resolution 1973. Both the US and UK have said that the attacks on the Qadhafi compound were not aimed at regime decapitation. Yet, unless the removal of Qadhafi is at least the implicit goal of the operation, it is hard to understand how the commitment can end. Without any ground force component (and believe me, I'm not advocating committing Western ground forces to Libya), it is hard to be sure that the rebels could take Tripoli, even with air cover. One can hypothesize things like Egyptian intervention on the ground, but present realities likely preclude that With overt Western training, arms, and support (as the US provided the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan), and provided the Libyan Army is not more cohesive than we think, there might be a chance but that goes well beyond the UN Resolution. But if Qadhafi survives and the rebels cannot win on the ground and take Tripoli, a long-term stalemate in which a pro-Qadhafi west and pro-rebel east struggle over the intervening land (where the oilfields happen to be) in a drawn-out civil war fought under an international no-fly umbrella becomes a serious prospect. Holding a coalition together under such an open-ended long-term conflict is a real challenge. But absent a change in the ground forces balance, it could produce a situation where the coalition cannot force a victory, but also cannot abandon its air umbrella without dooming the rebels. It is a grim prospect for the coalition, and also for Libyans on both sides.

Not that I have an easy out to offer. To scale back now would guarantee the defeat of the rebels and would give Qadhafi a victory he would trumpet to the world; it would give other autocrats a license to make war on their own people. To commit ground troops is simply impossible barring a return of conscription, which is not in the cards.

That leaves a decapitation strategy, unlikely to be approved by the UN and certainly not by the Arab League. I'm going to go there anyway since I'm sure many are (while preserving deniability) talking about it. And while I'm certainly not advocating assassination, I'm starting to wonder if some won't begin to question if that is the only route out of the muddle in which we find ourselves. So we should at least acknowledge the question is out there.

Our ability to target individuals has certainly improved since we bombed Qadhafi's tent in 1986, but even with Predators we still take out the occasional innocent target in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and Qadhafi's security is much more professional than the Taliban's. Our attempts in 2003 to target Saddam Hussein not only failed, but even though Baghdad fell in April, Saddam was not captured until December. It's not as easy as some people think.

Something more direct, up-close and personal than a Predator, such as a special operations squad targeting Qadhafi, makes a lot of people more uncomfortable than a Predator strike. The US officially abjured political assassination in the 1970s amidst the CIA scandals of the era, though since 9/11 the boundaries have become fuzzier. But there is also a clear tradition of targeting command and control in war, and the old question of whether killing Hitler wouldn't have been better than the mass carnage of World War II is a favorite of debate in ethics classes. The US chose to directly target Japanese Navy Chief Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku in 1943, recognizing that removing the genius behind Japan's naval power would shorten the war. But Yamamoto was a uniformed military man in the direct combat chain of command, and a legitimate wartime target, flying in a military plane in a combat zone when he was shot down, though even so the personal element of the targeting is still controversial. Qadhafi's command role is far less direct, and while he still wears (ever differing) uniforms occasionally, his legitimacy as a target is at best debatable.

But if we don't target Qadhafi personally and no one close to him does either, this could devolve into a long-term civil war in which our role is merely an open-ended commitment to provide air support. We may face one of those awful escalate-or-quit choices which forces us to choose between mission creep and betraying those we intervened to save.

Tactics without strategy is the noise of defeat. Sun Tzu was a very wise man, considering many people think he never even existed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nearing the Endgame in Yemen

While the world has been watching Libya, the power base of President Salih in Yemen has been unraveling. Major Army defections, diplomats quitting around the world. It looks like we're nearing the endgame there.

UPDATE: Today was apparently Salih's birthday. I wonder if he had a cake?

The New Egyptian Security Chief

You will recall that last week Egypt's new Interior Minister, Mansur Eissawy, abolished the notorious State Security Investigations Service (Mubahith Amn al-Dawla), and the whole State Security Apparatus, (Jihaz Amn al-Dawla), the hated secret police of the old regime. Abolished. Kaput. Finis. Khalas.

In its place would be created a new "National Security Sector" (Qita‘ Amn al-Watani) devoted to the constitution, human rights, and respect of political freedoms. It sounded like a real improvement: it would be a mere "Sector," not an "Apparatus," and it would be in the service of the Nation, not the "State." It sounded as if it might go around handing out ice cream to kids instead of torturing people.

Of course General Eissawy himself came from State Security, like most Interior Ministers (but he was of course one of the good cops and if anything bad happened he was only following orders), and soon it was noted that "a large number" of former State Security officers would be recruited to the new agency, which would otherwise of course be completely different, of course.

Well, the Interior Minister has just named the new head of the "National Security Sector." Mother Teresa being dead and the Dalai Lama apparently being busy elsewhere, he has chosen, for want of a better candidate, (surprise, surprise!) a Major General from the old (abolished, totally gone, not there anymore, we promise) State Security.

Major General Hamid ‘Abdullah (photo above right) had been serving as security chief for the northern Sa‘id (Upper, that is, southern, Egypt), and before that had been chief of security in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, and before that, a Deputy Chief for Cairo.

Some press: English summary in Al-Masry- Al-Youm here; longer Arabic version here; Al-Shorouk in Arabic here; Al-Dostour here. While these are all independent papers few of their reports go beyond a press release. A Facebook group discussing the appointment, though still sparse last night when I read it, sees him as an old guard security man unpopular with Christians due to his service in Upper Egypt.

Stay vigilant, everyone: the Egyptian Revolution is a work in progress. The new bosses still look a bit like the old bosses.

I hope I don't sound too cynical. Skepticism, though, is appropriate here, I suspect.

The Referendum Results

I'll be posting more later about the Egyptian referendum (77% yes, about 22% no) but until I do I'd recommend Issandr El Amrani's take here and here.

And since, despite his base in Cairo, Issandr is a Moroccan-American, take a look at comments by Egyptian bloggers Zeinobia and Sandmonkey. All in English. I'll sample others later.

And note that many who voted no are still pleased. There were irregularities — the ancien regime has not been swept away entirely — but the results were credible, given that the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the old guard and some at least of the young revolutionaries backed a yes vote. It may not have been a perfectly run elections (American critics: remember "hanging chads"? but it was probably the fairest in the living memory of most Egyptian voters, though not all will agree.

Nowruz Mobarak!

With the beginning of spring I must of course wish all of those of you who celebrate Nowruz a happy New Year, whether you are Iranian, Afghan, Turkish, Central Asians, some folks in the Balkans, Syrian ‘Alawites, Zoroastrians everywhere, members of the Baha'i Faith — almost anyone who has been touched by the culture or faith of ancient Persia. You'll find my earlier Nowruz posts here, and Wikipedia's background here.

Nowruz literally means "New Day," which I wish all my readers.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Violent Weekend All Over

After a quiet day trip to the Shenandoah Valley today, some of it spent in the nearly sealed off Fort Valley of the Massanutten range where Verizon's famous red map apparently does not reach and my phone was unable to get either a signal or the Internet, I return to learn that:
  • The strikes on Libya are well under way (no link here, as it's everywhere);
  • 50 mortar rounds were fired into southern Israel from Gaza today, and Israel is promising retaliation;
Well, it started as a relaxing weekend. I guess I should have stayed off the grid.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Best wishes to my Jewish readers on the occasion of Purim this weekend.

While I have family plans over the weekend I may drop by here occasionally when events warrant, as I rather suspect they will.

The Stirrings in Syria

Syria has been stirring this week, despite strong responses from the security forces. Today there was violoence in Deraa near the Jordanian border with two reportedly killed; also demonstrations in Damascus, Homs, and Baniyas in the northwest. There have also reportedly been stirrings at Deir al-Zor in the east and Qamishli near the Turkish border, the latter in Syria's Kurdish region. Some videos collected here.

Yemen Declares State of Emergency after Bloody Day

Yemen has now declared a State of Emergency after a bloody day in which over 40 people were killed in Sanaa, in what the opposition is characterizing as a massacre. The government is denying that its security forces opened fire. The tensions in Yemen are growing rapidly despite President Salih's attempts to defuse them.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the authorities have torn down the distinctive monument that stood in the Pearl Roundabout, which had become a symbol of the resistance.

More on Intervention: The Military Issues

Further to my initial reactions of last night, a few thoughts before anything starts to happen in the Libyan intervention:
  • A robust European participation. It's good that the US will not be taking the lead, though of course US forces, AWACS and other surveillance assets will be present. The absence of a US carrier contributes to this, but it's best not to let Qadhafi paint this as an American operation.
  • Air strikes are essential, but may also be enough. Bosnia and Kossovo may be suitable parallels. The main advantage the Qadhafi forces have is their air power and armor. This is classic tank country, made famous by Rommel and Montgomery. If the armor can be blunted by air strikes, it can have real effect.
  • There probably already are special operators on the ground. Everyone has made clear that there sill be no invasion, no "boots on the ground." In terms of infantry that will surely be the case, but special operations forces are probably already present. Recall that an SAS team already got caught blundering around in eastern Libya. I suspect their American and French equivalents are there too.
  • The question of Egyptian involvement. Egypt has the most immediate interests in play here, and the largest Army in the region. There are already reports that Egypt is providing small arms to the rebels and may be providing elite special forces to train the rebels as well. I suspect that, short of Qadhafi forces crossing the international border, the Egyptians will keep their involvement fairly low-key and deniable; they are still in the middle of revolutionary ferment and the military, which is running the country now, is understandably preoccupied. But if push came to shove, the only nearby state that could field a large enough Army to crush the Qadhafi forces is Egypt's.

The Egyptian Army's Tin Ear

Egypt's Supreme Military Council has urged media not to publish any opinion or discussion of Saturday's constitutional referendum beginning this morning and continuing through the close of the polls tomorrow evening, lest they influence voters one way or the other.

What part of "democracy," "free speech," and "free press" don't they understand? As The Arabist notes, young people have been waiting in long lines to attend lectures and debates about the referendum. They are hungry for debate.

The Army's role has been ambivalent lately: still insisting they are protectors of the Revolution, but sometimes using old regime tactics, as they did when breaking up the Tahrir encampment. Abolishing State Security, but letting it be known the new agency swill recruit many officers from the old. Generally they've been positive on the referendum — accepting the proposals of independent jurists, guaranteeing both judicial and civil society oversight, etc. — but also displaying some old reflexes: insisting the whole package must be accepted or rejected, rather than allowing votes on each amendment separately; and now this attempt to cut off debate on the eve of the vote. They may be sincere about democratization and handing over power, but at the very least they have a tin ear for opening up the public square.

Some Egyptian Museum Artifacts Recovered

Some good news: the partial looting of the Egyptian Museum on January 29, along with other looting o9f archaeological sites elsewhere, was one of the real cultural downsides of the Egyptian Revolution. Now, Al-Ahram Online is reporting that three of the thieves have been apprehended and some items recovered. The headline says "16" out of 54 artifacts have been recovered, while the body text says 12, and the breakdown also sounds like 12, so possibly it was hasty headline writing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Intervention: Now What?

Andrew Exum, who knows more than most of us do about war, asks some very pointed questions about the coming intervention in Libya. [Incorrect link has now been fixed.] I realize that time was running short and the rebels were up against the ropes, but whatever else the international community may call it, they are entering the war in Libya. The don't-just-stand-there-do-something impulse has carried the day and while I share the sentiment that the rebels deserve support and protection, I worry that the objectives are still rather hazy and the precise goals unclear. Europe and the Arab world have been urging this intervention; let's hope they will play full roles in it. If Qadhafi can paint this as an American intervention, he wins the propaganda narrative, and the wave of Arab revolutionary fervor could be sidetracked. .

YNet: Israel Fears Sushi Shortage

YNet's Headline: Israel Fears Sushi Shortage After Quake.

And it's not from The Onion, but from the online site of Israel's largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Aharanot. And it's not April 1, either.

Sure, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown are tragic events, but can we still get our seaweed and wasabi?

On Egypt's Constitutional Referendum

Given the war in Libya, the crackdown in Bahrain, ongoing demonstrations in Yemen and elsewhere (not to mention the disasters in Japan), it's easy to lose track of some of the less dramatic processes of democratization under way. But Saturday will mark a major step forward in Egypt's process for choosing a new government, with a nationwide referendum on the constitutional amendments proposed by the committee of jurists named by the ruling Higher Military Council. There is a lively debate over the amendments, with many supporters of the revolution urging their rejection, preferring to take Tunisia's route and write a new constitution from scratch. What is interesting, however, is that both sides of the debate expect the referendum to be the freest vote Egyptians have enjoyed for years: with full judicial monitoring, and open to everyone over 18 with a national ID card, not just to registered voters. (Members of the judiciary, Armed Forces, and police, however, are excluded.) It is also the first referendum or election in memory in which no one is certain of the outcome beforehand.

A public web page offers full texts of the amendments, an interactive map to find the nearest polling station, and a how-to on the voting. (Link is in Arabic.) The constitutional amendments are as follows (full texts of before and after versions in Arabic here), while Carnegie offers a guide in English here. The changes would entail:

Article 75: In addition to Presidential candidates being Egyptian nationals with two Egyptian parents, the amendment would bar persons holding dual nationality or with a non-Egyptian spouse.

Article 76: Would much simplify the Mubarak-era restrictions on who could run for President, to open up to political parties and independents.

Article 77: The present unlimited six year terms would be replaced by a limitation to two four-year terms.

Article 88: Restores oversight of the elections by an independent judiciary.

Article 93: Would require Parliament to respect the decisions of the Court of Cassation, which in the past has frequently overturned the results of disputed elections but was simply ignored by the regime.

Article 139: Would require the President to name a Vice President within 60 days of taking office. Mubarak ruled for nearly 30 years without naming one, only to name ‘Omar Suleiman in his last weeks.

Article 148: Limits the President's ability to declare a State of Emergency. (The State of Emergency declared after the Sadat assassination in 1981 lasted the duration of Mubarak's term.) the President would need the support of a Parliamentary majority, and the Emergency could not last more than six months without approval by a popular referendum.

Article 179:
The provision allowing, as a counterterrorism measure, the trial of civilians by military courts, warrantless arrests and detentions, and other measures, would be deleted outright.

Article 189:
Would both revise and add to the procedures for constitutional amendments, requiring approval of amendments by both a Parliamentary majority but also a popular referendum, but also calling on Parliament and the President to name a consituent assembly within six months of elections, which could write an entirely new constitution.

Many of the existing political parties have supported the amendments package (which must be voted up or down as a package); the Muslim Brotherhood has as well, telling its members that voting is a religious duty. Mohamed ElBaradei and many of the younger leaders of the movement, however, favor voting it down and moving directly to a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, rather than liberalizing the old one. One area of debate among reformers is whether to accept the amendments package, which would move towards elections or a new Parliament and President in the coming months, or start by writing a whole new constitution, which would probably entail a longer period of military rule. The military has made clear it wants to hand off power within six months.

Saint Patrick's Day Rerun: Ireland and Egypt

You know, with a name like Michael Collins Dunn, I have to appease the ghost of my Irish great-grandmother, at right, by noting Saint Patrick's Day. I'm told she often talked of the Little People, of whom the leprechauns are only a subset, and I don't want them pestering me. Way back in 2009 when this blog was young and spry, I did a lengthy post about the hazy but nonetheless real connections between Egypt and Ireland in the early Christian period, full of Egyptian monks buried in Ireland, Irish guides to pilgrimage in the Wadi Natrun, the curious artistic links (especially the nearly identical Coptic and Celtic wheel crosses), Egyptian glass in Ireland and British tin in Egypt, and Patrick's own apparent familiarity with Egyptian monks. That post is here, and I'd ask longtime readers to read it again, and those who haven't seen it before to do so now. Also note this later post on an Egyotian papyrus found in an Irish bog. Maybe my affinities with Egypt aren't just sentimental; perhaps they're genetic.

And again this year to you all, whether you're raising a Guiness or a Stella or something non-alcoholic, Misr umm al-Dunya and Éirinn go Brách.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A "Large Number" of SSI Officers to Be Recruited for "New" Agency?

The Egyptian independent paper Al-Shorouk is reporting that a large number of officers from the dissolved State Security Investigations will be incorporated in the new National Security Agency. As I noted yesterday, the credibility of the new agency will depend on its being something new, not a renamed SSI. If the "high level security source" Al-Shorouk claims to have talked to knows whereof he speaks, that doesn't augur well. Blogger 3arabawy (Hossam al-Hamalawy), who published the pictures of SSI officers only to see Flickr take them down, doesn't like it one bit. I can't say I blame him.

Red Cross Pulls Out of Benghazi

The ICRC has pulled out of Benghazi, expecting an imminent attack on the city. Earlier, the Qadhafi regime had threatened to attack the city by midnight, but there are also reports that the rebel forces are waging counterattacks near Ajdabiyya. Qadhafi may succeed in the military conquest of his own people, but I would expect we will see a growing guerrilla war, especially in the east. He may find himself someday bracketed in Libyan history books with General Rodolfo Graziani (the "Butcher of Fezzan" and ‘Umar al-Mukhtar's executioner). Of course, Graziani was a colonialist and a member of the Fascist Party of Italy, but other than that . . .

Playing the Sectarian Card

Marc Lynch notes the fact that the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and today's crackdown are part of the regime's effort to frame the issues in Bahrain as a Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry rather than an issue of democratic reforms. Among his points:
The Bahraini regime responded not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown. Anti-Shi'a vituperation spread through the Bahraini public arena, including both broadcast media and increasingly divided social media networks. This sectarian framing also spread through the Arab media, particularly Saudi outlets. The sectarian frame resonated with the narratives laid in the dark days of the mid-2000s, when scenes of Iraqi civil war and Hezbollah's rise in Lebanon filled Arab television screens, pro-U.S. Arab leaders spread fears of a "Shi'a Crescent", and the Saudis encouraged anti-Shi'ism in order to build support for confronting Iranian influence.
While this strategy may work in the short term it's quite dangerous in the long term, with possible destabilizing effects not only in the Gulf states but in Iraq and Lebanon, where sectarian identities already run high. The demonstrators did not portray this as a sectarian issue; the official media did. Claiming that the demonstrators are agents of Iranian influence may drive the reform movement in that direction, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing the sectarian card may boost further support from conservative Sunni states, but in the long run I suspect it is playing with dynamite.

As Bahrain Gets Tough, Speculation About Divisions in Royal Family

On a day when Bahrain security forces have been rounding up demonstratorsx aznd showing a tough line against protests, there is growing speculation (such as this story) of splits in the ruling Al Khalifa family. Several accounts now suggest that the Crown Prince, Prince Salman, was about to negotiate a reform deal that would bring the opposition into talks, when Sunday's violence erupted and brought the GCC intervention on Monday. The Crown Prince is widely seen as a reformer, but if there is any truth to this version of events, it would appear that hardliners within the family are now in the ascendant, with Saudi support backing then up.

I'm down with some kind of bug today but expect to post more later.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bad Day in Bahrain

Reports indicate bloody clashes in Bahrain, which combined with the progress of Qadhafi forces in Libya make this a bad day for revolutionary movements.

King Hamad's declaration of a three-month state of emergency in Bahrain gives the security forces the authorization to break up demonstrations, and the Saudi military presence (now clearly Saudi National Guard troops in battalion strength) and UAE police contingent reinforce the Bahraini forces. While the Saudis did announce one Saudi soldier had been killed in Bahrain, by most accounts I've seen, the Saudi forces are not being used directly against the demonstrators (though there have been a few allegations to the contrary).

The dilemmas for US policy are considerable, but the GCC move may not prove to be a wise one for King Hamad and the Al Khalifa generally. The move further polarizes Sunni-Shi‘a tensions in the Gulf, and by internztionalizing the issue, may actually invite the kind of Iranian meddling it is allegedly forestalling. It makes the usually cautious Saudis appear adventurous, but if it exacerbates tensions in Bahrain, it cou;ld mean the Saudis will be there a long time, as a necessary prop for the throne. And so King Hamad could find his country becoming a virtual Saudi protectorate.

Egypt: An End to State Security Investigations

Egypt's new Interior Minister Mansur Eissawy has issued a decree abolishing the State Security Investigations Service "and all its administrative units, sections and offices in all the governorates of the Republic." The Arabic announcement is here.

In its place will be a new service, to be named the "National Security Sector," which will prtec intrernal security and fight terrorism "in accordance with the constitution and laws and the principles of human rights and freedom," and recruitment of officers will begin soon so that the new service can conduct its duties "without interference in the lives of citizens or the exercise of their politial rights."

It goes without saying that this is encouraging news, provided that they aren't just renaming the old service so notorious for its human rights abuses. If there appears to be a mass transfer of personnel to the new service, there will be much suspicion about any real change. Will it take over the files on citizens kept by the old agency? I suspect those who fought for change will be cautiously optimistic but also vigilant.

Seznec on the Saudi Intervention

Over at Foreign Policy's Middle East channel, Jean-François Seznec sees the Saudi intervention as a slap in the face for the US and a blow for the Khalifas of Bahrain.

Falafel Wars

More food fights, this time involving falafel. (Sorry: link was wrong but now fixed.) At least, unlike the various hummus and other battles documented in that first link, they aren't trying to make the world's biggest falafel. Oh, the beans, the beans! But I'm still always bothered over the fight about whether hummus, or baba ghanouj, or falafel, or whatever, is Israeli or Palestinian. The similarities of the dietary laws between Judaism and Islam has often meant that in the modern US, if no halal grocery was available, observant Muslims would buy from kosher shops. Conversely, many Jews in Arab countries welcomed the fact that Muslim dietary taboos tracked so closely with their own, so even food without a rabbinical stamp might be quite kosher if it was halal.

Israelis should remember that the pioneers of the state got to know hummus and falafel becsuse that was the food available when they started their work. Israelis should also remember that their own pioneers had only arrived in the land a short time previous.

It's a harder task for Palestinians. They see every Israeli claim to hummus or falafel as a piece of cultural genocide. To us., it sounds absurd until we think about it. If we are what we eat, is it any surprise that our most intractable dispute today has a culinary competition?

Monday, March 14, 2011

The GCC Intervention: Knowns and Unknowns

The GCC intervention in Bahrain today can be spun or parsed in many ways: a Saudi-imposed pax arabica to stop the problem in Bahrain; a multinational Sunni police force to keep restive Shi‘a in check; a necessary chess move to parry an Iranian attempt to subvert the Gulf; a stability operation. Various regional players are already portraying it as some or all of these. Here are some quick end-of the day thoughts about what we know and, obviously, don't know.
  • Mission. Officially, the GCC force is there to protect government buildings, oil installations, and the financial centers. The first deployments were in the district where the Royal Family is located, so protection of the throne is also apparently a mission. But would these foreign troops be used directly against the demonstrators? That would be a very provocative move. It's also not clear what the mix of military and internal security components is (see "Size and Composition" below), which could tell us more about the mission. There may be an attempt here to portray this as a move against possible Iranian intervention; the Saudi media have sought to discern an Iranian hand behind both internal Saudi protests and the Bahraini movement (mostly through an implied "local Arab Shi‘ites = Iranian fifth column equation which is hardly helpful to communal peace).
  • Who's on Board and Who, if Anyone, Isn't? So far as I've seen at this writing, while Bahrain describes this as a GCC force invited in by Bahrain, only Saudi Arabia and the UAE have confirmed they have troops (Saudi) or police (Emirati) deployed there. But if these are really Peninsula Shield forces, my understanding is they could only be committed by a unanimous GCC decision. Kuwaiti MPs are already asking if Kuwait is supporting the intervention, and Qatar, with its maverick foreign policy and historic dynastic rivalry between the Al Thani of Qatar and the Al Khalifa of Bahrain, seems unlikely to be eager to rescue their ancient rivals. And Qatar might consider that if the GCC can intervene to protect a regime against internal enemies, it could also seek to support rivals against an existing regime, as Qatar has sometimes suspected its neighbors are trying to do. Is the whole GCC really behind this?
  • Size and Composition. The initial reports were of about 1000 Saudi troops (not entirely clear if Royal Saudi Army, National Guard, or a mix), and 500 Emirati police. Are there other contingents? If they really are from the designated Peninsula Shield force, which consists of regular Army (not trained for domestic control), it may be to allow the Saudis to portray this as an international issue, a Perfidious Persian Plot. Perhaps we'll know more tomorrow.
  • How was it Authorized? If this was authorized, as Bahrain implied, by the GCC on Sunday, in an otherwise unannounced meeting, why are we hearing little from Kuwait or Qatar about their roles? Who gave the final authorization? It probably is legal internationally under the GCC security and defense agreements, but it seems to have been put together quickly by an often fractious bloc of countries.
More thoughts as we know more.

Forces are from Peninsula Shield, Bahrain Says

Bahrain is now saying that the GCC (but clearly, mainly Saudi) forces which have entered Bahrain are from the GCC's Peninsula Shield force. Peninsula Shield is the GCC's joint intervention force normally based in northeastern Saudi Arabia.

The US is treading cautiously, as I expected, expressing concern about the use of troop nd sending Jeffrey Feltman to Bahrain.

The Distraction Factor

I suspect the "GCC" intervention in Bahrain — which apparently consists of about 1000 Saudi forcesa — while a direct response to the worsening of the situation yesterday, also is taking advantage of the fact that, in the wake of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters, the world's media attention is focused elsewhere. While most major news networks deployed heavily to the Mideast in the past few months, the big names have moved on to Japan, while those remaining in the Mideast have to also cover both sides in the Libyan war. Yemeni forces have been using greater force with the protesters as well, in part because the whole world is now occupied elsewhere.

A more disturbing thought is that the world's distraction may not be the only reason governments are cracking down harder on the protests: despite the Arab League's unprecedented support for a No-Fly Zone in Libya, beleaguered autocrats may be emulating Qadhafi on the assumption that a hard line still works. I'm not sure that it does in the long run, but it may in the short run.

The US response is going to be interesting. A lot of Bahraini opposition figures have already noted that US Defense Secretary Gates was just there on Saturday. I don't believe it's cause and effect, but many in the region may well jump to that conclusion.

GCC Troops Enter Bahrain; Protesters Charge "Occupation"

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops have moved into Bahrain to help keep order after a violent day of clashes yesterday. Other reports suggest that primarily Saudi troops are involved, in keeping with Saudi concerns over the mostly Shi‘ite protests against the Sunni government in Bahrain spreading to their own Eastern Province. While there may be a GCC fig leaf in place, I suspect we are essentially dealing with a Saudi intervention. The opposition is denouncing it as an "overt occupation," with all the negative semantic baggage the word "occupation" carries with it in the Arab world.

Unless we count Qadhafi's reliance on sub-Saharan African mercenaries in Libya, this marks the first overt cross-border intervention in the current wave of Arab protests. Last month I noted the concerns of the Saudis about events in Bahrain as a potential area of US-Saudi disagreement and friction; now we appear to have arrived at a critical moment.

It will be interesting to see the US reaction, which will require some diplomatic finesse, I suspect.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Happens if Qadhafi Wins?

As the Libyan government juggernaut moves eastward, apparently willing to use the full weight of modern arms against Libyan citizens, other autocratic regimes will no doubt be watching. This could still result in a long civil war, but events of the past few days suggest that we cannot completely rule olut the possibility that Qadhafi will crush the opposition with as much ruthlessness as Saddam used against the Shi‘ite and, until Western intervention, Kurdish revolts in 1991 (or as Syria did in Hama in 1982). Should that happen, many of his fellow autocrats may decide that Tunisia and Egypt were exceptions, and that the old methods still work, despite Twitter, YouTube and Al Jazeera. But I'm not abandoning hope yet.

Flickr Removes State Security Officers' Photos

The set of photos and information on Egyptian State Security officers that were posted to Flickr after the fall of the Nasr City State Security headquarters, Hossam al-Hamalawy, who blogs as 3arabawy,
and who had posted them to Flickr, has been forced to take it down by Flickr for "copyright infringement." Many Egyptian activists are already calling for a boycott of Flickr. (One note for some of those tweeting on this: Flickr is owned by Yahoo, not by Google as some of you seem to think; Google owns YouTube, so don't boycott Google.)

Remember the Streisand Effect, the Internet rule that says that the surest way to get information spread widely across the Internet is to try to censor it? I'm sure they're going to reappear and wish I'd downloaded copies; will post the links when they reappear. This may be a job for Wikileaks.

But I'm sure, they'll be back. [UPDATE: They may go up on Facebook, and he is reportedly getting help from the "Anonymous" people.]

An Aside on Tifinagh

Yesterday was unusual given the current high level of politics and revolution in that two of the posts — one on Morocco and one on Libya — touched on Tamazight ("Berber") language issues. In the second of these I reproduced the flag used by some Tamazight-speakers as an international flag of the Amazigh (pl., Imazighen) people, and noted simply that "The character is in the ancient Tifinagh script." (It's actually the letter "Z" in Tifinagh.)

Now it says here (actually it says it up there under the masthead) that I'm supposedly "Putting Middle Eastern events in cultural and historical context." I'm reasonably well aware that for many of my readers who aren't specialists in things North African, "the ancient Tifinagh script" may not mean very much. (As a test case I asked my wife, who has an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and she was unfamiliar with the term.) So let's take a brief break from ongoing revolutions and talk Tifinagh for a bit.

Now I've never studied any of the "Berber" languages (these days a somewhat politically incorrect term, since it comes from the same Greek root as "barbarian"), and therefore everything I say here is derivative of other people's expertise. The Wikipedia article isn't bad as an introduction.

Tifinagh (ⵜⵉⴼⵉⵏⴰⵖ in Tifinagh: don't blame me if the font doesn't display properly on your browser) is the name used in modern North African languages to refer to an ancient script known to classical historians as "Libyco-Berber" script. It is an alphabetic writing system seemingly ultimately derived from Phoenician, and presumably adapted by Berber-speaking peoples from the script of their Carthaginian neighbors. In fact, and this is one of the most intriguing things about it, "Tifinagh" is apparently formed from the Berber feminine prefix with the root "Punic," from the Latin word for Carthaginians, itself of course derived from the Greek name for the Phoenicians. (But it must have come through the Latin: the Carthaginians, like the Phoenicians and the early Hebrews as well, all referred to their own language as kan‘ani, "Canaanite.") So the name may mean "Punic characters" or "Phoenician characters," though the derivations are not always obvious. As with the Greek and Roman alphabets, both derived ultimately from the Phoenician, the shapes have changed noticeably. (There are other theories of origin; there's rarely unanimity on these kinds of issues.)

The original "proto-Tifinagh" or Libyco-Berber script was used in North Africa from roughly the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Variants were used as far afield as the Canary islands, where ancient inscriptions have been found and the indigenous language of the pre-colonial people known as Guanches shows affinities to Berber.

A form of Tifinagh survived the ancient world and the disappearance of other writing systems such as Punic. The Tuaregs of the Sahara, who speak a Berber language, retained a form of Tifinagh as their own writing system.

In recent decades, "Neo-Tifinagh" was adapted for the writing of other Tamazight languages besides Tuareg. Most publications in Tamazight, however, appear in Latin script, or sometimes in Arabic. In 2003, however, Morocco began to favor Neo-Tifinagh over either Latin or Arabic character, and the number of publications are increasing. In Algeria, I understand Latin script is most common in the Kabyle areas, Arabic among the Shawi (Chaoui), and Tifinagh in the deep Sahara. Many Imazighen see it as a "native" script (even if Punic was an import from the east a long time ago), an alternative to either copying the colonial powers by using Latin script, or adaptimg to the Arabic-speakers who have long suppressed Tamazight by using Arabic script for Tamazight.

For the truly interested, here's a French introduction to the pan-Berber alphabet in both Tifinagh and Latin from YouTube via a website devoted to the Shawi language (spoken in eastern Algeria), that via a website devoted to all things Shawi, and ultimately via Lameen Souag:

Egyptian Potential Presidential Candidates Maneuver

Over the past few days, Egyptian political figures have started to emerge from the upheaval and position themselves for expected Presidential elections. Departing Arab League Secretary-General ‘Amr Moussa has thrown his hat in the ring, as has Mohamed ElBaradei, to no one's real surprise. Though ElBaradei is already hedging a bit with conditions on the constitutional amendments issue, I should note that my cynicism in the past year or so over his chances were based on the fact that there was no then-constitutional route to power open to him. For example, back in 2009, I snarkily noted:
. . . his conditions include an independent national committee to oversee the elections, absolute judicial supervision of the vote, and international observers.

And rainbow-colored unicorns in the inaugural parade, I suspect. Okay, Mubarak senior and junior will surely agree to all that.
Well, the Military Council has already pledged most of that, except the unicorns, and these days, after all that's happened, I'm willing to believe even in rainbow-colored unicorns. Mubarak senior and junior are gone. It is, obviously, a whole new ball game.

I'm sure veteran opposition figures like Ayman Nour, and the longstanding political parties as well as many new ones, will also be looking at their options. The Muslim Brotherhood is playing a cautious game, afraid of spooking the West.And one of the oldest faces of the old guard, Safwat al-Sharif, who goes back to the Nasser era and was a Mubarak loyalist to the end, is said to be forming a new party to replace the NDP. No comment there, but don't bet your savings on its chances.

We're still at the beginning of the process, but they're off and running.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rogue's Gallery: Protesters Publish Pictures of State Security Officers

When Egyptian State Security in Nasr City was stormed last weekend, protesters found two DVDs marked "Archive of Agency Officers," and including photos, files, and other information on officers of State Security Investigations. Amid demands they be tried for torture and other crimes, they have, of course, posted the pictures on Flickr.. Now I'm sure not everyone pictured engaged in torture, and generally I don't like exposing people in covert work, but then they didn't ask me, and they aren't all innocents, either.

Why do so many of them look like the KGB heavies in old James Bond movies?

Light Posting

I'm feeling a bit under the weather. Posting may be light for the rest of the day.

Second Tamazight Note of the Day: Libya

Sometimes stories come in pairs. Not only has King Muhammad VI pledged that Tamazight will be made an official tongue of Morocco (see previous story), but, as Lameen Souag notes, a rebel website showing various towns proclaiming their opposition to Qadhafi., includes one from the "Berber"-speaking Jabal Nafusa that is in Arabic with a short summary in Nafusi Tamazight at the end. He educates us on the other Tamazight and non-Arab speakers of Libya, as well.

And here is the declaration of support for the revolution from the town of Nalut in Jabal Nafusa. After the Arabic declaration (as Lameen notes, classical but with colloquializing on numbers/dates) it transfers to a Tamazight speaker at 1:29.

The second flag at right above, after the Free Libya flag, is the international Amazigh flag. The character is in the ancient Tifinagh script.

Morocco: The King Tries to Get Ahead of the Wave

King Muhammad VI of Morocco has gone on TV and pledged constitutional amendments to provide for greater justice and democracy, including a Prime Minister chosen from the party that wins the most votes, and has also pledged to make Tamazight ("Berber") an official national language.

Whether this is enough and in time I'll leave to someone who knows Morocco better than I. The King has come a long way since his father's day and is young enough and Western enough that he may get it, and be able to surf ahead of the wave. The monarchy has a lot of prestige, including religious prestige, and the King even has the old title of the Caliphs, amir al-mu'minin, Commander of the Faithful. But the Palace also has a huge economic monopoly and there are the usual demographic and wealth distribution issues. But at least he's acting before he's cornered.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tunisia Dissolves the RCD

Only days after abolishing Tunisia's State Security, a court has decided to dissolve the formerly ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the former all-pervasive party of Ben Ali, and liquidate its assets. On a day when, by contrast, clashes between thugs and demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square suggested the old Egyptian State Security apparatus is still holding on, the abolition of the RCD meets another of the demands of the Tunisian revolutionaries.

No-Fly Zones and Other Military Options

The debate over na No-Fly Zone over Libya is intensifying, and some are calling for more direct military intervention. So much of the rhetoric appears to be occurring in a vacuum that it may be worth returning to a few first principles and home truths. (For the moment, I'm going to leave aside the blowback from playing into Qadhafi's hands by making it look like the rebels are Western puppets: I'm just going to look at the practicalities.)

You cannot commit forces you do not have. I have heard few if any of the advocates of increased US involvement call for 1) a military draft or 2) massive tax hikes to support a huge increase in our military forces, already committed to two wars. I, too, would like for Clark Kent to slip out of the Daily Planet, change into Superman, fly to Libya, and, oh, let's say throw Qadhafi into the sun with a single heave. But I can't find the area code for Metropolis, or even for Gotham City to ask Commissioner Gordon to crank up the Bat-Signal. Absent those solutions, we're stuck with an overcommitted US Armed Forces, many of whose front-line troops are on their fourth or fifth deployment, or worse, with dwindling budgets and massive stress, and they're a volunteer force, so the longer this goes on, the harder replenishment will be. And we don't even have one carrier in the Med. Not one, save a recently deployed helicopter carrier. Take on MiGs and Sukhois with helicopters? You go first, please. Where will we run our No-Fly Zone from? Europe?

Libya is big. Sure it doesn't have many people, and most live near the coast, but the air bases are scattered inland, and by many accounts the African mercenary troops are being flown into desert air bases like Sabha, and a no-fly zone would presumably want to stop that. So you really want to deny the whole airspace. Libya is 679,359 square miles in area; or 1,759,541 square kilometers. The whole of Iraq (and even when the northern and southern no-fly zones were both in place, the whole country was never included) is 169,234 square miles, or 438,317 square kilometers. (Numbers are from Wikipedia.) Or, for the mathematically challenged, Libya is four times the area of Iraq, and some of its key airfields are deep in the Sahara. And we never enforced a no-fly zone over all of Iraq.

You need either carriers or bases nearby. We may be able to dispatch B-2s from Missouri or B-52s from Diego Garcia to make the rubble bounce in troubled regions, but a no-fly zone requires continuing combat air patrol to deny the skies to the bad guys, and that requires fairly close-in bases, large deployments, and high sortie rates. For the Iraqi northern no-fly zone we had NATO bases in eastern Turkey, and for the southern we had carriers in the Gulf and bases in Kuwait, Qatar and, with a wink and a nod, probably Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Now let's look at the options in Libya.
  1. Carriers.We would have to bring the USS Enterprise from its current Gulf deployment, and it's due for retirement soon anyway, and is supposed to be supporting those other two wars. Of other NATO allies in the Mediterranean, France has one active carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, homeported in Toulon, and some older ones in mothballs. Italy has two, Garibaldi and Cavour, both short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) carriers, homeported in Taranto and La Spezia, respectively. Spain also has two STOVL carriers, Principe de Asturias and the new Juan Carlos I, only just commissioned in September, both homeported in Rota. These STOVL carriers, sometimes called "Harrier carriers," embark AV-8B Harrier aircraft, which have limitations in speed and range against frontline fighters, and helicopters. Britain has one STOVL carrier still in service, HMS Illustrious, homeported in Portsmouth and not, so far as I know, in the Med. That's it for NATO, unless they can get Russia or India to join the party.
  2. Land Bases. One could wish that Egypt would be willing to commit its western air bases or even its Air Force itself nto operations over Libya, but in the present revolutionary situations there and in Tunisia (which has a minuscule armed forces), this seems unlikely, and even offering to host Western forces would be difficult if not impossible. Right now the Egyptian Armed Forces are not only running the country but trying to provide police functions as well, with the State Security Forces somewhere between dissolved and in opposition. Similarly, though the rebel forces are apparently in control of the old British airbase at Tobruk and other Libyan airbases in the east, they seem unlikely to host foreign air operations there. Other nearby land bases could include a) Malta, with a number of bases that served well for the RAF in World War II, but aren't terribly current; b) the British Sovereign Bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia on Cyprus; c) various NATO and Italian airfields in Italy, Sicily, and offshore islands. The closest to Libya would be an airstrip on Lampedusa, apparently just a civil airfield, but I don't think it could sustain combat aircraft operations. A bit farther away is Pantelleria, from which bombers operated during World War II, but neither is exactly ready, so far as I know at least, for modern air war. For all I know there may be covert bases in some of these places, but if so, they're still covert from me.
  3. A Regi0nal Operation.There are reports that the Arab League has suspended Libya's membership, OPEC is moving to increase production, etc. If this all proves to be both true and somehow substantive. the possibility of some sort of regional collective action, unprecedented as it might be, could increase, and that could allow a figleaf for, say, the Egyptian Air Force to step in. Experience suggests pigs will fly before this happens, but I must note that experience has not been the most reliable guide lately.
Having noted these obstacles to a No-Fly Zone, need I discuss the problems of a ground force intervention?