Monday, February 28, 2011

Reporting about the Middle East

Today, perhaps more than ever, we need access to informed media coverage about current events in the Middle East. However Western reports about this region are often lamentable, and today the below article by the Washington Post is a pretty good example of questionable journalism. The authors offer a cliched Orientalist stereotype of an imagined Middle Eastern society that is unchanging and static, calling this fanciful place "placid Oman, a sleepy, palm-fringed beach nation." This description almost conjures up images of half nude females reclined, seductively eating dates. And in the following paragraph, the authors suggest that anti-system demonstrations were even picking up in Lebanon. Now by all accounts I have seen so far, including the government sponsored Voice of America, apparently only hundreds joined in this protest yesterday to oppose sectarianism, a far cry from the usual thousands that rallies usually draw in Beirut alone. Perhaps then this statement is merely wishful thinking on behalf of the newspaper's local audience now that the Hizbullah led coalition is in charge here. But we all know that just because you write and publish something, does not make it true.

Pressure for Change Builds Across Arab World

By Marc Fisher and Liz Sly
Washington Post
Monday, February 28, 2011

TUNIS - Tunisia, whose revolution convulsed the Arab world, ousted its second leader in less than two months Sunday, as the euphoria triggered by the uprising in January began to give way to the realization that achieving meaningful reforms may prove tougher than toppling dictators.

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi announced in a televised address Sunday that he was stepping down after days of violent clashes between police and protesters in the capital, Tunis, that left three demonstrators dead.

Ghannoushi had taken charge after mass demonstrations forced the resignation of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose flight into exile Jan. 14 inspired copycat revolts in Egypt and Libya and protest movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Iraq.

But Tunisians, complaining that the prime minister was too close to the old regime and lacked commitment to the reforms he had promised, had taken to the streets again, this time more rowdily, hurling rocks at shops as well as police as they vented their frustration at the slow pace of change.

The revolutionary fervor unleashed across the region in the wake of Tunisia's revolt shows no sign of abating, and on Sunday it spread to two countries in the oil-rich Persian Gulf that had hitherto seemed relatively immune to the turmoil elsewhere.

In the tightly controlled kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of 119 academics and activists called for sweeping political reforms in a statement posted on Saudi Web sites. On Twitter and Facebook, activists called for demonstrations March 11 and 20 to demand reforms, echoing the "Day of Rage" dates set by activists elsewhere in the region that have in some places triggered full-scale uprisings.

The statement by the academics did not call for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy or challenge the rule of the ailing and aging King Abdullah, whose promises to reform the highly restrictive country have stalled amid squabbles over who among his relatives should succeed him.

But it did call for the replacement of the current system with a constitutional monarchy that would dramatically reduce the hereditary powers of the royal family, raising the specter of unrest spreading to the world's largest oil producer.

And in placid Oman, a sleepy, palm-fringed beach nation on the Arabian Sea where the sultan has long been regarded as one of the region's more benevolent rulers, two people were killed in clashes between police and demonstrators in the town of Sohar, 120 miles northwest of the capital, Muscat. Oman's state-run news agency said protesters demanding political reforms, jobs and higher wages set fire to the governor's residence and burned a police station, houses and cars.

Even in Lebanon, which has no government to rebel against because of disputes among the country's feuding political factions, demonstrators took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the sectarian system that has defined and divided the volatile country for seven decades.

Yet even as the tumult spreads and intensifies, some of the heady optimism that accompanied the initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is starting to fade.

Tensions are building in the tiny island nation of Bahrain, where two weeks of protests originally aimed not at overturning the regime but at securing constitutional reforms have drawn only trifling concessions from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

In a sign that attitudes there may be hardening, about 2,000 protesters staged an angry march from the Pearl Square roundabout in the city's center to the diplomatic district, rejecting negotiations with the government and calling for the resignation of the cabinet. Some chanted, "Down, down, Khalifa!" in reference to the king.

The return of a hard-line leader of Bahrain's long-oppressed Shiite majority, who was greeted with fireworks by his supporters at the roundabout Saturday, may also signify an escalation of the protest campaign there.

Hassan Mushaima, leader of the banned Haq party, hinted in an address to the crowd that he would lead the opposition in a more overtly religious direction, suggesting that Bahrain's majority Shiites were willing to die for the sake of reforming the minority Sunni regime.

"If not for the blood of the martyrs, we would not have reached this stage," Mushaima said, referring to protesters who died in clashes with the army this month. "We are all ready to sacrifice more and more to gain our demands."

Governments across the region have scrambled to offer concessions to their citizens in the form of pay increases, new social programs and even outright cash gifts. In Iraq on Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the members of his two-month-old cabinet 100 days to respond to demands for better governance and services or risk being replaced, following violent protests there Friday in which 29 people died.

But most of those gestures fall far short of the genuine changes that Arab citizens have long coveted but have only recently begun to demand.

The departure of a second Tunisian leader in as many months is likely to intensify pressure for speedier reform elsewhere, predicted Wael Nawara, a leader of the opposition Ghad Party in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in the face of mass popular protests this month has been followed by building tensions between the military and activists.

Small groups of demonstrators remain camped in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the mass uprising that ousted Mubarak, and suspicions are growing among many who participated in the revolt that the military leaders now in charge of running the country are not sincere about reforms.

"Getting rid of the dictator was symbolic, but the war goes on and people are getting very impatient," Nawara said, predicting calls for the resignation of Egypt's new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, a former minister of aviation in Mubarak's government.

"Mr. Shafiq will have to go, and I'm sure Ghannoushi can teach him a lesson about how to write his resignation letter," he said.

In his departing address, Ghannoushi told Tunisians he hoped his resignation would herald an end to the protests that have shut down the country's economy and paralyzed the capital for more than two months.

But several members of parliament and others from newly formed political parties warned that the move was more likely to encourage agitators to think that by ratcheting up their street actions they could bring down the remaining members of the Ben Ali government.

Sly reported from Cairo. Michael Birnbaum in Manama, Bahrain, and Stephanie McCrummen in Baghdad also contributed to this report.

Qaddafi's Surreal and Theatrical Gamble

In Libya Capital, Long Bread Lines and Barricades

By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
February 26, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya — A bold play by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to prove that he was firmly in control of Libya appeared to backfire Saturday, as foreign journalists he invited to the capital discovered blocks of the city in open defiance of his authority.

Witnesses described snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians. Many said security forces had been removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll.

But when government-picked drivers escorted journalists on tours of the city on Saturday morning, the extent of the unrest was unmistakable. Workers were still hastily painting over graffiti calling Colonel Qaddafi a “bloodsucker” and demanding his ouster.

Just off the tour route were long bread lines where residents said they were afraid to be seen talking to journalists.

And though government forces dominated the city center — heavily armed checkpoints staked out downtown while orange-suited cleanup crews were out in force around the central Green Square — there were signs of defiance in other neighborhoods, where the streets were blocked by makeshift barricades of broken televisions, charred tree trunks and cinder blocks left over from protests and street fights the night before.

“I have seen more than 68, I think, people killed,” said a doctor who had been helping out at a neighborhood clinic in Tajoura and gave his name only as Hussein. “But the people who have died, they don’t leave them in the same place.

We have seen them taking them in the Qaddafi cars, and nobody knows where they are taking the people who have died.” He added, “Even the ones with just a broken hand or something they are taking away.”

In some ways, the mixed results of Colonel Qaddafi’s theatrical gamble — opening the curtains to the world with great fanfare, even though the stage is in near-chaotic disarray — are an apt metaphor for the increasingly untenable situation in the country.

There were unconfirmed reports Saturday that thousands of armed rebels from other regions of the country were marching toward Tripoli. Rebels have already taken over and held the eastern half of the populous coast. On Saturday, after days of fighting, they also reportedly took Sabratha, a town near the capital known for its Roman ruins.

At the birthplace of the revolt, in the eastern city of Benghazi, a group of senior military officers who had defected were forming a council to lead their troops against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. One of them, an air force general, said three air bases had defected to the rebels, along with the region’s military police.

And the rebels said they were in the process of forming an interim government to oversee the areas no longer under Colonel Qaddafi’s control. It is expected to include Mustafa Mohamed Abd al-Jalil, a former justice minister who quit to join the insurrection and may now assume the role of interim prime minister.

“The temporary location of the government will be Benghazi, until the liberation of Tripoli,” said Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for a coalition of antigovernment activists.

But so far, the protesters say, the rebel force heading for Tripoli has been stymied at Surt, a Qaddafi stronghold on the coastal road where his tribe is concentrated. In Tripoli, home to nearly two million of Libya’s roughly six and a half million people, Colonel Qaddafi and his special militias may have unleashed enough firepower to enable them to keep a firm grasp on the city for some time.

His plainclothes police and uniformed security forces appeared in control of most of the city’s largely deserted streets on Saturday, and there were unconfirmed reports that he was following through on his threats to distribute weapons to his supporters.

Clearly, both the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi appear to have the will and the wherewithal to fight on for some time.

The selective manipulation of world opinion seemed to be a critical part of Colonel Qaddafi’s strategy. Until Friday night, his government had imposed a complete ban on foreign journalists. It had shut down most Internet access. It confiscated cellphone chips and camera memory cards from those leaving the country. And it did whatever else it could to prevent unauthorized images of the unrest here from leaving the country.

But then Colonel Qaddafi reversed himself when his son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi said Thursday that Libya would now welcome foreign journalists. Banners in English were hung in Green Square addressed to the BBC and Al Jazeera: “Don’t spread lies that reflect others’ wishful thinking.”

Officials began scrambling to figure out how to issue visas when many of Libya’s embassies abroad had already defected to the rebels.

In a late-night news conference on Friday for journalists assembled in the luxurious Rixos Hotel, where food was plentiful, the younger Mr. Qaddafi, dressed in a dark zip-up sweater, acknowledged for the first time the extent of the rebellion, confirming reports that rebels had control of Zawiyah and Misurata, despite a concerted effort over the last two days to dislodge them.

But the government was negotiating with the protesters, he said, and making great progress. (The rebels, who insist their complete victory is at hand, have never acknowledged any such talks.)

The younger Mr. Qaddafi promised journalists they would find the streets peaceful and his father beloved. Do not mistake the sound of celebratory fireworks for bursts of gunfire around the streets of Tripoli, he advised them.

The next morning, a driver took a group of foreign journalists to an area known as the Friday market, which appeared to have been the site of a riot the night before. The streets were strewn with debris, and piles of shattered glass had been collected in cardboard boxes.

A young man approached the journalists to deliver a passionate plea for unity and accolades to Colonel Qaddafi, then slipped away in a white van full of police officers. Meanwhile, two small boys surreptitiously offered bullet casings that they presented as evidence of force used on protesters the day before.

At another stop, in the working-class suburb of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by low makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and often random force.

A middle-age business owner, who spoke on condition that he be identified only as Turki, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward Green Square.

Suddenly, he said, they found themselves caught between two groups of double-cabin pickup trucks without license plates, about 40 in all. Men in the trucks opened fire, and killed a man named Issa Hatey. He said neighbors had renamed the area’s central traffic circle “Issa Hatey Square” in his memory.

He and other residents said that over the past week neighbors had been besieged by pickup trucks full of armed men shooting randomly at the crowds, sometimes wounding people who were sitting peacefully in their homes or cars. At other times, they said, the security forces had employed rooftop snipers, antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks and buckshot, and the residents produced shells and casings that appeared to confirm their reports. Turki said that on one day he had seen 50 to 60 heavily armed men who appeared to be mercenaries from nearby African countries.

The neighbors built the low barricades on the streets to impede the trucks with guns. “They come and they kill whoever they can see,” he said. “We are just walking and we don’t have guns.”

Turki said he knew as many as 10 people who had vanished from hospitals. Protesters said they now sought to hide their wounded within the hospitals and to sneak them out as quickly as possible. “We dress them and hide them, otherwise they will disappear,” Turki said.

The residents also said that they had seen security forces scooping up dead and wounded protesters and removing them from the streets. After Friday Prayer, Turki and his friends said, a crowd of several thousand had gathered at Issa Hatey Square to march to Green Square. They raised what he called “the old-new flag,” the former tricolor of the Libyan monarchy that rebels have claimed as the flag of a free, post-Qaddafi Libya.

Two carloads of Libyan Army soldiers had joined them, he said, though they never used their weapons to avoid provoking a bloody retaliation.

Around 5 p.m., when the march arrived at the Arada neighborhood, they were ambushed by snipers on the rooftops. At least 15 people had died there, he and others said.

A precise death toll has been impossible to verify. A Libyan envoy said Friday that hundreds had been killed in Tripoli.

Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up after 42 years under Colonel Qaddafi, and just weeks after popular uprisings ousted the authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Turki shrugged. “When you have been pushed, pushed, pushed, and then suddenly you just explode,” he said.

Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died Friday, and he said the protesters were planning another demonstration on Sunday. Turki, 46, said he was ready to die if it came to that.

“It is for the revolution, for the people, for Libya to live in the peace,” he said.

A short while later, a pickup truck full of other protesters wheeled by just in time to carry the foreign journalists back to meet their driver, and the official tour continued.

Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya.

Is Yemen Next?

Key Tribal Chief Wants Yemen Leader to Quit

By Laura Kasinof and Neil MacFarquhar
The New York Times
February 26, 2011

SANA, Yemen — One of Yemen’s most prominent tribal sheiks resigned from the ruling party on Saturday and called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, posing one of the most significant challenges yet to the Yemeni leader, an American ally who has struggled for more than two weeks to quell a popular revolt.

The defection of Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar ratcheted up concerns that the antigovernment protests, which started mainly as a youth movement against the president’s 32-year rule, could take a more violent and unpredictable turn.

“Many worry that tribal leaders will try to hijack what is now a peaceful and civilian-led protest movement and will turn the struggle into a tribal conflict instead,” said Robert Malley, the head of the Middle East and North Africa group at the International Crisis Group. “We are not there yet.”

A few tribal chieftains had already weighed in against Mr. Saleh, but Sheik Ahmar comes from a different branch of the same northern tribal confederation, the Hashids, as Mr. Saleh, so his decision to turn on the president is likely to be more destabilizing.

“The president is in a very tenuous position; I don’t think he has ever faced a crisis like he is now,” one senior Yemeni official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his post.

The official noted that tribal support can go to the highest bidder — and that issues like the fighting by breakaway groups in the north and south were far more serious. But each layer of opposition makes it harder for Mr. Saleh to maneuver in the charged atmosphere after the toppling of two other Middle East strongmen. “I call on all noble Yemenis to overthrow the regime,” Sheik Ahmar told a huge rally of tribesmen in northern Amran Province, according to local news reports. As the crowd shouted antigovernment chants, he said, “The Yemeni people would not keep silent on the blood of martyrs shed in Aden and will avenge it.”

The government crackdown of the unrest appears to have been fiercest in Aden, in the south, where there is an active secessionist movement.

In Washington, Obama administration officials say that of all the Arab countries now in chaos, they worry most about the fate of Mr. Saleh, who has been crucial to American efforts to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That fight has become more urgent as Yemen — particularly its strife-torn lawless hinterlands — has emerged as a base for attempted Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In one such attempt, explosives in courier packages bound for Jewish centers in the United Sates were shipped from Yemen.

Those facts have complicated the administration’s response to the escalating unrest in Yemen. The administration has been urging Mr. Saleh to make democratic changes, and he recently said that he would step down in 2013. But he has not come close to addressing the concerns of the crowds that have faced off against his security forces.

“Obviously, we want to see President Saleh take the same steps which we’ve asked of other leaders, and that is to be responsive to the aspirations of his people,” said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The resignation comes a day after the largest protests yet, with tens of thousands participating in pivotal cities including Sana and Taiz. A sit-in that started last weekend in front of Sana University continued Saturday.

Mr. Saleh has long been considered a master of manipulating Yemen’s powerful tribes, buying off some with a vast patronage network and playing them against each other. But the sheiks he cultivated over four decades in power are dying off.

“Saleh has had a real problem creating alliances with the sons of tribal leaders in the same way he created alliances with their fathers,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University who has been studying Yemen’s tribes for eight years.

Since the protests gained momentum, the president has been doling out cars, favors and other largess to tribal leaders. But defections raise questions about his effectiveness. “For the past couple weeks, Saleh has been making a play to bolster his tribal alliances,” Mr. Johnsen said. “If the president loses his tribal support, that puts him in a precarious position.”

Sheik Ahmar is a prominent leader in Yemen’s most important confederation of tribes, one of 10 sons of a legendary tribal sheik who died in 2007. The family has hedged its political bets, with sons playing important roles in either the ruling party or the main Islamist-oriented opposition group. One of Sheik Ahmar’s brothers is the deputy speaker of Parliament, while another has been a longtime critic of the president. Sheik Ahmar himself quit the ruling party once before.

His rift with Mr. Saleh follows the resignation of 10 Parliament members with the ruling party earlier this week, including Mohammad Abdel Illah al-Qadi, an important tribal leader of Mr. Saleh’s own Sanhan tribe, an affiliate of the Hashid.

An increasing number of tribesmen have joined the antigovernment protest in Sana, complaining that the president had kept certain northern tribes weak for years in order to stay in power. “He makes war between the tribes by giving certain people money,” said Faisal Gerayi from the impoverished northern Jawf Province, who was sitting under a tent with other tribesmen from outside the capital.

On Friday, at least one person was fatally shot in the southern port city of Aden. But some local reports placed the number of the dead much higher, and it is difficult to confirm their legitimacy.

Human Rights Watch quoted a witness as saying that at least one security officer, wearing the gray uniform of the National Security Bureau, opened fire with an assault weapon with no warning. The police then joined the fray, shooting both in the air and at the crowd, as well as unleashing tear gas, the organization quoted the witness as saying.

There are accounts of snipers being used against demonstrators, and gunfire was heard late into the night in some districts of Aden. Residents complain that the city is in lockdown and that they cannot move from one district to another.

After fatal clashes in the past week, protests in Sana and Taiz have been relatively calm in recent days after Mr. Saleh announced that security forces should protect protesters.

The Yemeni government denied that security forces shot a demonstrator, blaming Yemen’s southern separatist movement for the killing. “An armed group of separatists who belong to what is called ‘the movement,’ fired aimlessly from some buildings at the protesters, security men, electricity office’s employers and citizens,” said a statement from Yemen’s official news agency.

Laura Kasinof reported from Sana, and Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.

Ghannouchi Resigns as Prime Minister of Tunisia

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi Resigns Amid Unrest

Interim president names Beji Caid-Essebsi as Ghannouchi's replacement following more violence on streets of Tunis.

By Kim Willsher
The Guardian
Sunday 27 February 2011

Tunisia was thrown into turmoil once more after Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned as prime minister of the post-revolution government amid further clashes between police and protestors. The interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, named the former government minister Beji Caid-Essebsi as Ghannouchi's replacement.

Ghannouchi said he felt forced to stand down "because I am not willing to be a person that takes decisions that would end up causing casualties". He made the announcement after three people died on Saturday and nine others were injured during outbreaks of violence on the streets of the capital, Tunis.

Tunisia's interim coalition has struggled to assert its authority since a wave of protests that started in December sparked what was called the "jasmine revolution", leading to the overthrow in January of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years.

Protestors have targeted Ghannouchi, accusing him of being too close to the former government. They have also become frustrated over the slow pace of change since the revolution despite the interim government's pledge to hold a general election by 15 July this year.

Ghannouchi, 69, who since 1989 had held various ministerial posts under the old regime, told a news conference he had thought carefully about the decision. "I am not running away from responsibility," he said. "This is to open the way for a new prime minister."

He added: "This resignation will serve Tunisia, and the revolution and the future of Tunisia."

On a third day of clashes, police fired tear gas and warning shots in an effort to disperse stone-throwing youths and protesters shouting anti-government slogans around Habib Bourguiba avenue in central Tunis. More than 100 people were arrested and accused of "acts of destruction and burning", according to a statement by the Tunisian interior ministry put out by the state-run news agency Tunis Afrique Presse.

Demonstrators want the interim government disbanded along with the current parliament. They also seek the suspension of the constitution and the formation of an elected assembly that can write another, organise elections and oversee the transition to democracy.

Ghannouchi took power after Ben Ali fled on 14 January. He formed a new "national unity" government, including opposition party members and a blogger.

Tunisia's revolution was sparked by the death of a young street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, in December. In an act of desperation which sparked unrest in several other Arab countries in the region, Bouazizi set fire to himself after officials stopped him selling vegetables without permission.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Middle Eastern Ideal

Tunisians are still fighting for a more representative government and an end to corruption. According to Reuters, yesterday three people were killed during clashes in Tunis after pro-Ben Ali thugs joined the continuing protests in order to create strife and chaos. Indeed, Tunisian security forces have attributed soaring crime rates to the former president's supporters who are trying to destabilize the country.

Regrettably, this scenario should not sound unfamiliar to Americans. This week the Governor of Wisconsin, Mark Walker, admitted that he considered calling on Tea Party activists to pose as troublemakers among protesting crowds in the state's capital. Stephen Colbert highlighted a similar effort by Mark Williams, a Tea Party activist, with one prominent right wing organization subsequently supporting his call. Joking aside, the message is clear: as Americans we are failing our people.

Today the world is starting a new chapter of history. Reading the below essay made me even prouder of the brave people of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunis and Yemen. Not only are they politically engaged, but they are also intellectually open to new possibilities and fearless in their fight to create more equitable societies for each other and their children.

But it also made me sadder that Americans are no longer able to see our positions as authors of our own collective histories. Is there still time for us?

History's Shifting Sands

The revolutions sweeping the Arab world indicate a tectonic shift in the global balance of people power.

By Mark LeVine
Al Jazeera
26 February 2011

For decades, even centuries, the peoples of the Arab world have been told by Europeans and, later, Americans that their societies were stagnant and backward. According to Lord Cromer, author of the 1908 pseudo-history Modern Egypt, their progress was "arrested" by the very fact of their being Muslim, by virtue of which their minds were as "strange" to that of a modern Western man "as would be the mind of an inhabitant of Saturn".

The only hope of reshaping their minds towards a more earthly disposition was to accept Western tutelage, supervision, and even rule "until such time as they [we]re able to stand alone," in the words of the League of Nations' Mandate. Whether it was Napoleon claiming fraternité with Egyptians in fin-de-18e-siècle Cairo or George W. Bush claiming similar amity with Iraqis two centuries later, the message, and the means of delivering it, have been consistent.

Ever since Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, the great Egyptian chronicler of the French invasion of Egypt, brilliantly dissected Napoleon's epistle to Egyptians, the peoples of the Middle East have seen through the Western protestations of benevolence and altruism to the naked self-interest that has always laid at the heart of great power politics. But the hypocrisy behind Western policies never stopped millions of people across the region from admiring and fighting for the ideals of freedom, progress and democracy they promised.

Even with the rise of a swaggeringly belligerent American foreign policy after September 11 on the one hand, and of China as a viable economic alternative to US global dominance on the other, the US' melting pot democracy and seemingly endless potential for renewal and growth offered a model for the future.

Trading places

But something has changed. An epochal shift of historical momentum has occurred whose implications have yet to be imagined, never mind assessed. In the space of a month, the intellectual, political and ideological centre of gravity in the world has shifted from the far West (America) and far East (China, whose unchecked growth and continued political oppression are clearly not a model for the region) back to the Middle - to Egypt, the mother of all civilization, and other young societies across the Middle East and North Africa.

Standing amidst hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square seizing control of their destiny it suddenly seemed that our own leaders have become, if not quite pharaohs, then mamluks, more concerned with satisfying their greed for wealth and power than with bringing their countries together to achieve a measure of progress and modernity in the new century. Nor does China, which has offered its model of state-led authoritarian capitalist development coupled with social liberalisation as an alternative to the developing world, seem like a desirable option to the people risking death for democracy in the streets of capitals across the Arab world and Iran.

Instead, Egyptians, Tunisians and other peoples of the region fighting for revolutionary political and economic change have, without warning, leapfrogged over the US and China and grabbed history's reins. Suddenly, it is the young activists of Tahrir who are the example for the world, while the great powers seem mired in old thinking and outdated systems. From the perspective of "independence" squares across the region, the US looks ideologically stagnant and even backwards, filled with irrational people and political and economic elites incapable of conceiving of changes that are so obvious to the rest of the world.

Foundations sinking into the sands?

Although she likely did not intend it, when Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, warned Arab leaders in early January that they must "reform" lest their systems "sink in the sand" her words were as relevant in Washington as they were in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo or Sanaa. But Americans - the people as much as their leaders - are so busy dismantling the social, political and economic foundations of their former greatness that they are unable to see how much they have become like the stereotype of the traditional Middle Eastern society that for so long was used to justify, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) supporting authoritarian leaders or imposing foreign rule.

A well known Egyptian labour organiser, Kamal Abbas, made a video telling Americans from Tahrir that "we and all the people of the world stand on your side and give you our full support". It is a good thing, because it is clear Americans need all the support they can get. "I want you to know," he continued, "that no power can challenge the will of the people when they believe in their rights. When they raise their voices loud and clear and struggle against exploitation."

Aren't such lines supposed to be uttered by American presidents instead of Egyptian union activists?

Similarly, in Morocco activists made a video before their own 'day of rage' where they explained why they were taking to the streets. Among the reasons, "because I want a free and equal morocco for all citizens," "so that all Moroccans will be equal," so that education and health care "will be accessible to everyone, not only the rich," in order that "labour rights will be respected and exploitation put to an end," and to "hold accountable those who ruined this country".

Can one even imagine millions of Americans taking to the streets in a day of rage to demand such rights?

"Stand firm and don't waiver .... Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights," Kamal Abbas urged Americans. When did they forget this basic fact of history?

From top to bottom

The problem clearly starts from the top and continues to the grass roots. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on the slogan "Yes we can!" But whether caving in to Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on settlements, or standing by as Republicans wage a jihad on the working people of Wisconsin, the president has refused to stand up for principles that were once the bedrock of American democracy and foreign policy.

The American people are equally to blame, as increasingly, those without healthcare, job security or pensions seem intent on dragging down the lucky few unionised workers who still have them rather than engage in the hard work of demanding the same rights for themselves.

The top one per cent of Americans, who now earn more than the bottom 50 per cent of the country combined, could not have scripted it any better if they had tried. They have achieved a feat that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and their fellow cleptocrats could only envy (the poorest 20 per cent of the population in Tunisia and Egypt actually earn a larger share of national income than does their counterpart in the US).

The situation is so desperate that a well known singer and activist contacted me in Cairo to ask organisers of Tahrir to send words of support for union workers in Wisconsin. Yet "Madison is the new Tahrir" remains a dream with little hope of becoming reality, even as Cairenes take time out from their own revolution proudly to order pizza for their fellow protesters in Wisconsin.

The power of youth and workers

In Egypt, workers continue to strike, risking the ire of the military junta that has yet to release political prisoners or get rid of the emergency law. It was their efforts, more than perhaps anyone else, that pushed the revolution over the top at the moment when people feared the Mubarak regime could ride out the protests. For their part, Americans have all but forgotten that the "golden years" of the 1950s and 1960s were only golden to so many people because unions were strong and ensured that the majority of the country's wealth remained in the hands of the middle class or was spent on programmes to improve public infrastructure across the board.

The youth of the Arab world, until yesterday considered a "demographic bomb" waiting to explode in religious militancy and Islamo-fascism, is suddenly revealed to be a demographic gift, providing precisely the vigour and imagination that for generations the people of the region have been told they lacked. They have wired - or more precisely today, unwired - themselves for democracy, creating virtual and real public spheres were people from across the political, economic and social spectrum are coming together in common purpose. Meanwhile, in the US it seems young people are chained to their iPods, iPhones and social media, which has anesthetised and depoliticised them in inverse proportion to its liberating effect on their cohorts across the ocean.

Indeed, the majority of young people today are so focused on satisfying their immediate economic needs and interests that they are largely incapable of thinking or acting collectively or proactively. Like frogs being slowly boiled alive, they are adjusting to each new setback - a tuition increase, here, lower job prospects there - desperately hoping to get a competitive edge in a system that is increasingly stacked against them.

Will Ibn Khaldun be proved right?

It now seems clear that hoping for the Obama administration to support real democracy in the Middle East is probably too much to ask, since it cannot even support full democracy and economic and social rights for the majority of people at home. More and more, the US feels not just increasingly "irrelevant" on the world stage, as many commentators have described its waning position in the Middle East, but like a giant ship heading for an iceberg while the passengers and crew argue about how to arrange the deck chairs.

Luckily, inspiration has arrived, albeit from what to a 'Western' eye seems like the unlikeliest of sources. The question is: Can the US have a Tahrir moment, or as the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun would have predicted, has it entered the irreversible downward spiral that is the fate of all great civilizations once they lose the social purpose and solidarity that helped make them great in the first place?

It is still too early to say for sure, but as of today it seems that the reins of history have surely passed out of America's hands.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Largest Protest to Date in Bahrain

Protesters in Bahrain Demand More Changes

By Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi
The New York Times
February 25, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain — In by far the largest protest yet here, tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the city’s streets on Friday and closed a stretch of highway as they demanded that their king dissolve the government and agree to a transition to a true constitutional monarchy.

The protest — which appeared to be twice as large as one on Tuesday that drew about 100,000 people — cut through Manama, the capital, with staggering numbers for a population of just 500,000. They marched in two huge, roaring crowds from the south and from the west, converging at Pearl Square.

“This is another great day for our movement,” said Abbas al-Mawali, 30, a security guard who joined the march. “We won’t stop until our demands are met. We will have a march like this every day if we have to.”

But after 11 days of protests, King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa has slowly moved to meet protesters’ demands, taking incremental steps. Late Friday, he fired three cabinet ministers, but not the prime minister — one of the opposition’s top demands. He also has not addressed the issue of democratic change.

His emphasis appears to have been on defusing the protests and repairing the damage to Bahrain’s international reputation after the army fired on protesters last week, as well as on limiting concessions to ones that do not affect the government’s power.

“The government released prisoners and said it will investigate what happened; it will make some small changes in the government,” said a rights worker who is not being identified to protect him from potential reprisals by the government. “The whole region is changing. Now is our chance. I am saying, If we don’t do this now, we never will.”

The protesters, meanwhile, have not articulated a strategy for bringing about change, beyond new protests and camping out in the square.

The unrest has been led by members of the nation’s Shiite majority, who have long been politically marginalized and who have accused the Sunni king and his government of discrimination.

In a shift on Friday, it was the Shiite religious leaders who called for protests, rather than the political opposition. Although some of the chants on Friday had a religious cast — with some people shouting “victory comes from God” — the protesters’ demands remained the same, emphasizing a nonsectarian call for democracy and the downfall of the government.

Since the start of the crisis, the government’s response has evolved. First the king unleashed his armed forces, who killed seven protesters and wounded dozens. Then, under international pressure, he withdrew the police and military from the capital, called for a national dialogue, released 300 political prisoners and pointed to the protests as evidence of his government’s tolerance.

His government is also working with a public relations agency based in Britain, the Bell Pottinger Group, which says on its Web site that “we understand how to create, build and protect reputations in the modern age.”

On Friday, Bell Pottinger staff members distributed a statement from the government’s spokeswoman, Maysoon Sabkar, saying in part, “The Crown Prince has called on all parts of society to engage in the national dialogue to progress reform.”

On Thursday, Ms. Sabkar read a statement referring to the killings by government forces as “regrettable incidents” and announced that the king’s son, the crown prince, had called for Friday to be a national day of mourning, and that the king “extended condolences to the families” of the dead.

Ms. Sabkar also said there were no shots fired from a helicopter or from a building last Friday. But she said she was not authorized to say who ordered the army to fire at all or where the shots came from that killed one man and wounded dozens of others. Witnesses said they had seen shots fired from a helicopter and a nearby building.

The statement also said that large crowds at the hospital prevented emergency workers from doing their jobs. But witnesses said they had seen soldiers fire weapons at ambulances as they tried to pick up the wounded, and doctors in the ambulances said the security forces had prevented them from picking up wounded people.

The government’s message inflamed some people in the square.

“These were not ‘incidents,’ ” Said Shamlouh, 37, an accountant, said, referring to last week’s protests, including one in which security forces shot at protesters sleeping in Pearl Square. “This was a massacre. It was people sleeping, families, children. And they opened fire on them. That’s not an incident.”

From Public to Private Wars

In Re Barak, Bullahs, BlackWater, Bounties & the STL

Franklin Lamb
Saturday 26 February 2011

Beirut - When the US marines were in and out of Lebanon in 1983-1984, some of those I met, when visiting their barracks with American journalist Janet Stevens to discuss Israel’s use of American cluster bombs against civilians, had the habit, as did sailors from the USS New Jersey, of referring to the Lebanese Capital simply as “Root.”

Or sometimes they would call it: “The Root” as in, “We came to “The Root” to kick some butt!”

The Marines were responsible for unexploded ordnance clearance in the area around Beirut airport while Italian, French and a small British forces worked in adjoining areas of West Beirut following the Israeli siege with sometimes carpet shelling. They did a good job in their area trying to make it safe for civilians and took 12 casualties, two fatal, from Israeli dropped American cluster bombs. Unfortunately the American forces were ordered to support the Israeli backed government of Amin Gemayel against the popular resistance and soon became participants in domestic conflict. This led to the Marines departure and despite recent Israeli proposals, it is not likely they or even NATO forces will arrive in Lebanon anytime soon.

But Blackwater - USA just might.

Despite a series of publicly announced “disassociations” periodically issued from the media offices at the Pentagon and State Department, plus a couple of image polishing name changes including currently, Xe Services LLC ( Xe being short for Xena, the mythical goddess of war) the hydra headed Blackwater (BW), founded in 1997 by Erik Prince and Al Clark is still quite active.

BW continues to sign US tax payer funded contracts while spreading its tentacles around the region ever scanning the horizon and sniffing out softer underbelly money makers to meet the payroll of its $500 per day operatives. Prince told the US Congress last year that his organization is” “A professional organization serving as a solutions provider to the U.S. government. We operate in the defense, training, logistics, and intelligence spaces, priding ourselves on getting the job done right.”

Two weeks ago in Leidschendam - Voorburg, which abuts The Hague and is the site of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Blackwater USA representatives looking to land a lucrative bounty hunter contract with the STL’s registrar’s office preferred to label Hezbollah simply as ‘Bullahs’. Apparently it’s some sort of BW macho lingo term from the organizations combat training bases in North Carolina and California. Some Blackwater mercenaries also used the “Bullahs” label in Iraq in addition to racist terms like “Ragheads”, “Hajiis”, and “Sand Niggers.”

In addition, Black water representatives, presumably offering “to get the job done right” have reportedly met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and will again during his current visit to Washington.

According to an email message from a Congressional Staffer who works for a Committee that receives intelligence briefings, BW has been getting cozy with Israel and may be in the process of setting up a BW “training center” in occupied Palestine north of Kabri which is about 20 miles south of UNIFIL’s HQ in Naqoura along the Lebanon-Palestine ‘blue line’.

Barak, according to the same source will meet on February 26 with National Security chief Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross to discuss Iran, Hezbollah, the STL, and the impact of recent regional events on the Israeli-Iranian strategic balance in the region.

During his meetings with BW representatives his message to BW may be along the lines of “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll hold your coats” as Israel increasingly considers following the American lead and hire mercenaries to confront its enemies.

Barak may and have a job for BW.

Based on sources who attended the recent Special Tribunal for Lebanon media briefings, as well as sources in Congress and North Carolina, it appears that the STL Registrar’s 1/17/11 announcement that the Court might be seeking help of the International community to arrest and deliver to the Hague those against whom Judge Daniel Frensen is widely expected to issue arrest warrants is indeed generating applications.

Following the STL’s implied job announcement, Blackwater’s HQ, still based in Moyock, North Carolina was abuzz with talk of “business opportunities.” According to a stringer for the Daily Southerner in nearby Tarboro, NC, who claims that she dates “BW special forces guys”: “Who better to go after the terrorists with arrest warrants from that Court than our local Confederate bounty hunters par excellence?”

By the morning of 1/20/11 and again on 1/21/11, Blackwater representatives, who arrived two days earlier in The Hague on a flight from Israel, tried to convince the Office of the STL Registrar, and, that evening, anyone listening in the nearby Hilton Hotel Grand Café Pearl that Blackwater could do the job better than Interpol. All they needed to know was that the proposed per head bounty dollar amount was guaranteed and they would do the rest.

After a dinner of pan fried wild sea bass and enjoying bottles of German wine, the more they drank and partied, the more the Blackwater reps claimed to actually relish a long overdue fight with “Bullahs.” One operative, according to two Dutch journalists who were present for part of the evening, told the group’s ”tourist hostess” dates, “when even one of them “Bullahs” needs to get busted, cuffed, and dragged to the Hague, we can do the job young ladies! Ya got our word on that!”

Blackwater to help Israeli army reoccupy Lebanon?

Ehud Barak’s statements this week about Israel reoccupying south Lebanon might lead some to muse whether the Defense Minister perhaps forgot why, when he was prime minister, he ordered the precipitous Israel nighttime stealth pullout, during which some local villagers claim they saw some elements of the Golani brigade literally skidding down the hill at Maroun al-Ras during the night of May 23, 2000 on their back sides as other Israeli occupation army units fled across the exiting points south of Aita Shaab and Bint Jbeil with resistance fighters hot on their tails.

In fact the reason then Israeli Prime Minister Barak ordered his army out of Lebanon, was partially under electoral pressure from the Israeli public, because Israeli causalities were skyrocketing. Barak also acted on the advice of his well-paid campaign advisor and Bill Clinton confidant, James Carville, who advised Barak that ‘moderate Israelis’ would vote for him if he did. As it turned out James underestimated the number of ‘moderate Israelis’, and Barak lost the election by a wide margin to Ariel Sharon who got 1,698,077 (62.39%) to Barak’s 1,023,944 (37.61%).

“Funny Jimmy” as he’s known in the Big Easy where he grew up, returned to the “James Carville and Mary Matlin show.” Not one to easily give up on lost causes it is being rumored in Washington that James, the apparent eternal devotee of “Le and La Clinton,” is spending much of his time these days trying to figure out how to get Hilary elected President and he is studying the odds for the 2012 Democratic primary. Carville, and others including remnants of his former campaign team in Israel, see the possibility of the Democrats dumping Obama as doable if former Israeli army reservist, Rahm Emanuel, the new Mayor of Chicago, will dump Obama, sign on with Hilary, and bring the US Israeli lobby and their cash with him.

Contrary to the Israeli lobby spin that Israel left Lebanon in May of 2000 as a unilateral goodwill gesture to advance the “peace process,” Israeli army statistics leading up to Hezbollah’s expulsion of the occupation forces, and the collapse of its collaborationist South Lebanese Army (SLA) matched those explained recently by Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General, former chemistry professor Sheikh Naim Qassim.

Also, Israeli TV audiences had grown weary of watching footage - often courtesy of Al-Manar - of Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon as a result of Resistance operations. Even today, fighters who were on the scene in the spring of 2000, report that they were surprised at the Israeli debacle as were SLA’s Lebanese collaborators. In some instances retreating Israeli soldiers used their former Lebanese “partners and brothers” as human shields hoping that the Lebanese resistance would not fire on Lebanese as the Israelis fled. The Israeli army did not inform their SLA allies that they were withdrawing. Ever hopeful of igniting a civil war in Lebanon, the new occupation army chief Benny Gantz and Israeli intelligence meticulously left behind lists of the names of many of its Lebanese collaborators hoping for a Lebanese - Lebanese bloodbath.

As it turned out Hezbollah quickly, and some say reluctantly, instructed their units to adhere to a strict policy or no retribution and to “let bygones be bygones.” Only modest punishment was administered by the Lebanese State Judiciary partly because the number of Israeli (US taxpayer) paid killers was high and there was not enough prison space to house them.

The issue of whether Hezbollah was too lenient with these collaborators following the expulsion of the Israeli occupation army is, eleven years later, still sometimes discussed in Southern villages among families who lost loved ones to the turncoats, many of the latter living today, as next door neighbors to their victims’ families.

If the STL decides to hire Blackwater - USA to execute any arrest warrants in Lebanon, or if Israel decides to use seek and kill Blackwater units during its predicted coming invasion, whatever that does for Xe’s Stock prices, its BW’s stock of fighters that will be much watched for in Lebanon.

As for Barak’s boast that the new Israeli army Chief Benny Gantz “knows south Lebanon” he might want to recall as he remembers why Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May of 2000, that as one Hezbollah veteran told this observer this week, “South Lebanon knows Benny Gantz”.

The Military Cracks Down in Egypt

Egyptian Military Forces End to New Protest

By Liam Stack
The New York Times
February 25, 2011

CAIRO — Tens of thousands of protesters returned Friday to Tahrir Square, the site of demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two weeks ago, to keep up the pressure on Egypt’s military-led transitional government.

But by early Saturday, the military made it clear there would be limits to further dissent as soldiers and plainclothes security officers moved into the square, beating protesters and tearing down their tents, witnesses said.

In a day that had begun with equal parts carnival and anti-government demonstration, protesters’ called for the quick cancellation of the Emergency Law, which for three decades has allowed detentions without trial, and the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general appointed by Mr. Mubarak days before he stepped down.

But after night fell, the protest transformed into a tense standoff between protesters and the military, whose neutrality during the uprising, and unwillingness to fire on the protesters, had turned them into popular heroes.

The first sign of tension arose when hundreds of people rallied in the intersection in front of the prime minister’s office, barred from taking their protest any closer to the ornate building by armored personnel carriers and a line of soldiers armed with Tasers.

The crowd returned to a chant heard often in the days before Mr. Mubarak fell, replacing his name with the prime minister’s: “The people want the overthrow of Ahmed Shafiq!”

Military police surrounded the protesters and kept them from leaving until late at night, witnesses said, while in Tahrir about a thousand people began to pitch tents and settle in for the night.

After midnight, soldiers and police officers took over the square.

Salma Said was asleep in a tent when it began to fall down on top of her. Outside people were screaming, and she emerged to see people being beaten by soldiers and armed plainclothes security officers wearing masks.

“They had their faces covered like criminals,” she said, “They only showed their eyes.”

“One of the officers threatened to shoot us and said he was going to set our tent on fire,” she said.

During the day Friday, the atmosphere could not have been more different. Many protesters had brought their families and were resting on blankets spread out in a grassy traffic island. A man sold chopped liver grilled on a portable stove, vendors offered cheese sandwiches and cups of sweet tea and others sold revolution souvenirs like t-shirts and headbands.

Solidarity with the antigovernment protesters in Libya was also a major theme. Crowds circled the square carrying two massive flags more than 25 feet long, one Egyptian and one of the Libyan monarchy overthrown by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 1969. Throughout the day protesters chanted “Long live free Libya.”

Protesters called on the military-led transitional government to fulfill demands made during the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, including the release of political prisoners, the removal of all ministers appointed by Mr. Mubarak and the prosecution of the former president and high ranking members of his party for corruption and abuse of power.

The military has shown little interest in firing Mr. Shafiq, but many Egyptians see him as a proxy for the former president, who has been keeping a low profile in the resort town of Sharm el Sheik since his ouster on Feb. 11.

“We overthrew the President and now we want to get rid of the rest of this corrupt government,” said Ashraf Abdel Aziz, a businessman accompanied by two daughters, ages five and two, who wore tight pigtails and whose faces were painted in the colors of Egypt’s flag. He described the girls, who came to daily protests with him for 18 days earlier this month, as “revolutionaries.”

The spirit of the revolution, which had included people from all segments of Egyptian society, was still evident in the mix of secular leftists, members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and women wearing full Islamic veils with children in their arms.

Ismael Abdul Latif, 27, a secular writer, chatted with the religious women, only their eyes showing, as they drew revolutionary posters.

“I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that we would be talking to a munaqaba”— as women in full veils are called — “in Tahrir Square,” he said. “A secular artist is having a political debate with a fully veiled lady and having a meaningful conversation. What’s the world coming to?”

But after midnight that answer was less clear.

Ms. Said, after fleeing her tent, ran with a group of other protesters to a nearby plaza, where they began to plot their next move. “In the morning,” she said, “we are going back to Tahrir.”

NPR Disappoints on Libya

Today National Public Radio featured the below article about the potential rise of al-Qaeda in Libya, adopting an analytical framework that is shallow and typical of the fear mongering on the right. First of all, how do we even know if there will be a so-called vacuum in Libya? Obviously Colonel Qaddafi's regime enjoyed very little domestic legitimacy to begin with, otherwise the country would not have collapsed so quickly in the Eastern cities and provinces. Indeed, his mercenaries currently fighting to protect him in the capital are mostly foreign and not Libyan. Secondly, as journalists have widely been reporting, Benghazi has emerged as a model of democratic self rule.

It is ironic that the these analysts put the United States at the center of all narratives except when we are literally on the ground fighting wars in the Middle East. They forget that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda emerged primarily to fight unjust governments in the Middle East. They wanted to transform their own societies, not ours. Without a totalitarian Egypt and Libya there would likely be fewer, or perhaps even none at all, supposedly radicalized Egyptians and Libyans.

Of course our support for these brutal regimes over time started implicating us as well. Especially after we began occupying countries and waging unjust wars in the region. After all, one of Osama bin Laden's key demands was the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabian soil. And how did we respond? By sending more troops into neighboring countries. Thus looking to the number of Libyans willing to travel to Iraq to fight American occupation as some kind of prediction for the society Libya is likely to create post-Qaddafi completely takes world history out of context and ignores questions of power. Ultimately, this analysis is unjust to the brave Libyans fighting for their freedoms and is unfortunately typical of the American myopia when it comes to this region.

A 'Vacuum' In Libya: An Opening For Al-Qaida?

By Dina Temple-Raston
Weekend Edition
February 26, 2011

Counterterrorism officials are watching events in Libya with particular attention. Their concern: Al-Qaida has long-standing ties with Libyan extremists that could give the group a toehold there.

The North African wing of al-Qaida wasted little time in picking sides: It is championing the protesters. On Thursday the group released a statement saying it would "do whatever we can to help" protesters overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Counterterrorism experts say they weren't surprised. They have been bracing for al-Qaida to weigh in.

"I think Libya presents to al-Qaida one of the best opportunities to reinvigorate itself and its message in the Middle East and especially in North Africa," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Al-Qaida's got lots of raw material, as it were, as well as a historical legacy to work with in Libya. And a vacuum in Libya, I think, is something that al-Qaida is poised perhaps to take advantage of."

Gadhafi And Al-Qaida: A Tense History

That raw material and historical legacy date to the 1990s. A group known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group tried to topple Gadhafi, and even tried to assassinate him 20 years ago. His security forces responded with a crackdown. Some members of the group fled Libya and joined organizations like al-Qaida. When that happened, Gadhafi saw a new threat: Osama bin Laden. He called on Interpol to intervene.

"The first international arrest warrant issued by Interpol against bin Laden was requested not by the United States, not by Kenya, or any of the countries you might think," says Hoffman, "but rather by Libya and Col. Gadhafi because of the threat al-Qaida and its brand of Islamism posed to his secular revolution."

So an alliance was formed. At the end of 2007, al-Qaida made the relationship with the Libyan opposition fighters official, and members of the group who had fled Libya became members of al-Qaida.

And some Libyans became part of bin Laden's inner circle. One of al-Qaida's top propagandists today is a Libyan, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

Some of the fighting group's members who stayed in Libya have since renounced violence and been released from prison. They said they have a decidedly different view of al-Qaida and have denounced it. Counterterrorism officials are split about whether that denunciation of violence is genuine.

Hard-Core Fighters

Part of the reason experts are so concerned is that Libyan Islamists have shown themselves to be hard-core fighters. The U.S. actually has documented proof of that in something called "The Sinjar Records."

Back in 2007, American soldiers discovered a trove of papers in an insurgent headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar. They were the insurgents' own catalog of foreign fighters, complete with the names and nationalities of foreigners who had come to Iraq to fight against U.S. forces. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point went through those records and found that of the more than 600 insurgents listed in the ledger, almost 20 percent came from Libya.

Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, says: "Having Gadhafi in some ways on the ropes and having some degree of chaos in Libya raises the potential that violent extremist groups will take advantage. And we could see a reassembling of these groups in a way we haven't in the recent past."

As he sees it, al-Qaida has a constituency in Libya. "There's a real danger here that you could have those same elements radicalize other individuals and then engage in more widespread network building and attacks in North Africa as well as southern Europe," he says.

At this point, U.S. intelligence officials say, it seems unlikely that jihadists could gain control of Libya. But what the chaos there does provide is far more room to operate. And there are some indications that is already happening.

Officials say jihadis in Libya have been looting military arms depots. That means that in the past week or so they've become more heavily armed than they've been in decades. Gadhafi's security forces had been keeping these groups in check. Without him, experts fear, there could be a free-for-all.

"Any time there is chaos there is opportunity," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Al-Qaida is a very opportunistic organization, and again with a lot of their members having ties to Libya there is an opportunity for them to exploit this chaos."

One of the things analysts are watching for: whether Libya begins to become a destination for violent jihadists, a safe haven like Somalia, where terrorist groups can operate away from a functioning government.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Still Hope that Imam al-Sadr Lives

As Gaddafi Teeters, Will the Mystery of Lebanon's Missing Imam Be Solved?

By Nicholas Blanford
Time Magazine
Friday, February 25 2011

The cracks running through the crumbling regime of Muammar Gaddafi have shed some fresh light on the fate of Musa Sadr, a popular and influential Lebanese Shi'ite cleric who mysteriously vanished while on a trip to Libya 33 years ago. Abdel-Monem al-Houni, a former colonel in the Libyan army who participated in the 1969 coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power, has broken a three-decade silence to declare that Sadr was shot and killed on the orders of the Libyan leader. At the same time, however, other reports emanating from the turmoil of Libya suggest that the cleric may actually still be alive, languishing out of sight in a prison for more than three decades.

Sadr, known to his followers by the honorific "Imam Musa", was a tall charismatic Iranian-born cleric who moved to Lebanon in the late 1950s and helped mobilize Lebanon's traditionally marginalized and downtrodden Shi'ite community. At the time, most Lebanese Shi'ites were beholden to a handful of powerful feudalistic landowners and poorly represented in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Sadr, however, quickly set about establishing vocational centers, orphanages, Islamic institutes and lobbying the government for a more equitable distribution of the state's resources. "It was Imam Sadr that woke up the sleeping giant that is the Shi'ites of Lebanon," says Aql Hamiyah, the military commander in the 1980s of the Amal Movement, founded by Sadr.

With his Persian-accented Arabic, striking physical appearance and unflagging energy, Sadr earned respect across the sectarian divide. He even took to preaching in Christian churches to the initial outrage of the more conservative members of the Shi'ite clergy. Abdullah Yazbek, an advisor to Sadr, recalls accompanying Sadr to a Christian village in south Lebanon where the cleric was due to speak. When the Christian congregation spotted him in the church, they began chanting "Allah u-Akhbar," God is Greatest, traditionally a Muslim invocation. Says Yazbek, "The way people treated him, it was as if he was Jesus Christ."

In the 1970s, Sadr found himself increasingly at odds with the Palestinian factions that had taken over south Lebanon from where they launched attacks into Israel. The residents of south Lebanon, including Sadr's Shi'ite constituents, inevitably bore the brunt of Israel's retaliation. Then, in August 1978, Sadr travelled to Libya with two companions, apparently hoping to persuade Gaddafi to use his influence to curb the Palestinians in Lebanon. (The relationship between the two men had never been good: According to Fouad Ajami's The Vanished Imam, the Libyan strongman brought a 1975 meeting with Sadr to an end by pretending to fall asleep.) The Imam was last seen in public on Aug. 31, 1978, shortly before his scheduled meeting with Gaddafi. Days later, in response to requests for information on his whereabouts from Sadr's anxious followers, the Libyan authorities claimed that the Lebanese cleric and his two colleagues had caught a flight to Rome. But Italian authorities said the three men were never on board the plane.

Ajami's book cites U.S. diplomatic cables indicating that Sadr may have been killed when a heated discussion between him and Libyan officials inadvertently came to blows, the cleric receiving a fatal one. But the Libyans never confirmed anything and Gaddafi would remain perpetually enigmatic about it — even after a delegation of 200,000 Lebanese Shi'ites traveled to Syria to plead with him for information about their beloved leader. Reminded of the Arab tradition of hospitality and that Sadr had been his guest in Tripoli, Gaddafi reportedly said, "I am told that Musa Sadr is an Iranian, is he not?" — indicating that the Arab custom did not extend to foreigners.

For many Lebanese Shi'ites, Sadr's mysterious exit evoked comparisons with the "hidden imam," a messianic spiritual leader who vanished in the ninth century and whose return, the majority of Shi'ites believe, will herald the end of the world and their salvation. Even today, Sadr remains a revered figure to Hizballah, the powerful Shi'ite militia, and other Lebanese Shi'ites.

Sadr's disappearance caused a rift between Lebanon and the Gaddafi regime that has never healed. Hamiyah, the Amal commander, staged an incredible six hijackings of Middle Eastern airliners in the years that followed in a vain attempt to pressure Libya into revealing the truth about Sadr. In an interview several months ago, the burly, thickly-bearded former militia commander wept openly when discussing his mentor's fate. "This brings great sadness to my heart," he said. "I am willing to sacrifice my sons and whole family to hear what happened to him.

Motives for Sadr's alleged assassination are plentiful. Some believe Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, colluded with Gaddafi to remove a persistent critic of the Palestinians in south Lebanon. Others suggest that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution against the Shah of Iran, regarded Sadr as a potential rival and asked Gaddafi to have him eliminated.

Now, as Gaddafi's hold on power looks increasingly frail, might the fate of Musa Sadr actually be confirmed? In an interview with the pan Arab Al-Hayat daily on Wednesday, Houni, who was Libya's representative to the Arab League before joining the uprising, said that Sadr's body was flown in Gaddafi's personal jet to Sabha, 400 miles south of Tripoli, and buried there. Najieddine Yazigi, the pilot and Houni's brother in law, subsequently was murdered to help preserve the secret. "I knew deep in my heart that he was dead, although I never wanted to believe it," said Hamiyah on being told the news. "I blame Gaddafi and he must be held accountable for this crime."

But the Saudi-owned Ash Sharq al-Awsat newspaper offered a ray of hope, quoting a Libyan dissident, Issa Abdul Majid Mansour, as saying that Sadr was alive in a prison in Sabha. If he is still alive he would be 82 years old today.

If Gaddafi's regime follows those of Tunisia and Egypt in the coming days, one can only wonder what other hidden secrets of the ruthless, flamboyant and eccentric Libyan leader's 42 years in power may yet be revealed.

Qaddafi's Last Act of Desperation?

Libya's Qaddafi Offers $400 per Family as Rebels Close in on Tripoli

Libya's besieged leader, facing a rebel advance on Tripoli and possible international sanctions, also pledged a 150 percent increase in some government workers' wages.

By Tom A. Peter
The Christian Science Monitor
February 25, 2011

As antigovernment forces and demonstrators draw nearer to Libya's capital, Tripoli, Col. Muammar Qaddafi appears to be further losing his grip on power.

In an attempt to appease the masses – possibly inspired by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who promised his subject $36 billion in benefits to stave off any potential revolutionaries – Libya's besieged leader on Friday pledged a 150 percent increase in some government workers' wages and promised to give every family $400.

Libyan state television announced the wage increase and said each family would receive $400 to help them cope with the rising food prices. The broadcast aired shortly before Libyans went to mosques for Friday prayers. After prayers, antigovernment protesters are expected to continue demonstrating, reports MSNBC.

The announcement of financial incentives appeared to have little effect. Antigovernment forces claim to be taking control of areas throughout eastern Libya. They have already taken hold of Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya and a longtime hub of government opposition. Even as large swaths of the country fall in to the hands of antigovernment forces, it appears that the Arab strongman who has ruled Libya for 41 years will not give up the capital city of Tripoli without a fight.

“If he lose [sic] control outside or not, to him the most important thing is my city, the capital Tripoli, and he doesn't want to let go. He doesn't understand. He doesn't care. He's just killing the people,” a woman in Tripoli told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The standoff may be coming soon. Violent clashes have come within 30 miles of the capital city. In the city of Zawiyah, one Libyan told Reuters that there was heavy fighting outside, but that security forces had been unable to penetrate the town.

“There are army and police checkpoints around Zawiyah but there is no presence inside. I just saw a few unarmed civilians,” Saeed Mustafa told Reuters.

Control of Benghazi and other parts of east Libya puts antigovernment supporters in control of critical oil reserves. Although mercenaries employed by Qaddafi have attacked two nearby cities in an attempt to quell the uprising, Sky News reports that rebels have managed to take control of a military airfield.

Humanitarian organizations say it is impossible to determine exactly how many people have died in the fighting. At least 300 deaths have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, while the International Federation for Human Rights puts the death toll closer to 700 people. According to Gerrard Buffet, a French doctor in Benghazi who was interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the actual number may be much higher. In the east alone he estimates that as many as 2,000 people may have been killed.

In the face of increasing violence, the international community is preparing to take serious action. France and the UK are calling for the UN to approve an arms embargo and sanctions on Libya. President Barack Obama has consulted with European leaders and when asked if the US would consider military options, the president’s spokesman, Jay Carney, responded, “I'm not ruling anything out," The Wall Street Journal reports.

French officials have made similar calls to action. French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said, “We can't make do with speeches any more, we need to act.”

Benghazi: A Model of Self Rule

Residents of Eastern Libyan City Try to Fill Void in Cradle of Revolt

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post
Thursday, February 24, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Here in this eastern Libyan city where the nationwide uprising against Moammar Gaddafi was born, there is no government. Motivated by fury after 41 years of oppression, the people rose up this week and ousted their local rulers.

But now, residents are determined to prevent chaos from filling the void. At the main courthouse, the city's educated professionals - lawyers, political scientists, teachers and doctors - have spontaneously formed a management committee to run Benghazi in the absence of the state.

Led by a female lawyer who has barely slept all week, the committee has moved with remarkable speed. It has organized street cleaning, traffic control and a program to consolidate the city's weaponry. The group has also created a security force, one it will need if Gaddafi's men should try to return.

"We don't know where we're going," said Ahmed el Gallal, 42, a Benghazi businessman. "But we know what we're moving away from."

Benghazi, which has long been a thorn in Gaddafi's side because of the city's rebellious nature, is fast becoming a model for what Libya's citizens hope to build in their country if their autocratic president should fall.

While Gaddafi derided his opponents Thursday as drug-addicted Islamic extremists, the picture here is of neighbors who are stepping up to build the society that many have long sought but until this week could not have imagined would be possible so soon.

Similar scenes are playing out in other eastern towns and cities, even as Gaddafi clings to power in Tripoli, the distant capital to the west.

"Gaddafi hoped people would take weapons and chaos would take this city. We're not going to let that happen," said Abu Ahmed, a businessman and retired psychologist with a degree from Michigan State University. "We want a state of law, human rights, democracy. . . . People are fed up of this criminal regime."

Ahmed's wife, Um Ahmed, is leading the city's management committee. The couple did not want their full names published, for fear of retribution.

The committee has sprung into action so quickly because its members had been closely watching democratic revolutions unfold in two of Libya's immediate neighbors, with the hope that something similar would happen here.

"We learned from the events in Tunisia and Egypt," said Um Ahmed, her eyes heavy with exhaustion and her short brown hair pushed behind her ears.

On Thursday, evidence of the committee's work was all around.

A judge stood in the middle of one intersection, directing people to wear their seat belts. Across the road, young men were turning in rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that were seized from local military bases when residents revolted. Throughout the metropolitan area of 1.3 million, fresh signs had been posted asking residents to keep the streets safe and clean.

The mood across the city was euphoric Thursday. After decades of repression, people have learned that they can successfully stand up to Gaddafi and his men. But the jubilation was tempered with fear and caution. With little hope of outside intervention to put a check on Gaddafi's behavior, people were terrified of what he might do next.

Benghazi has paid dearly for defying its leader. Residents say that at least 250 civilians died and 2,000 were injured when Gaddafi tried to put down the youth-led uprising. Security forces loyal to the government shot at demonstrators, burned them and drove over them with cars, people here said.

In the city morgue, eight charred corpses lay unclaimed and unidentified Thursday. They were found in a tunnel underneath one of the security bases.

Jalil Howeidy, head of the radiology department, said he thinks they were soldiers who were punished for disobeying orders to attack civilians. Amid the green body bags, he wept, overwhelmed by a week of carnage.

"Tell the world!" he screamed. "These are crimes against humanity."

Inside the Jallaa Hospital, someone had left carnations on the pillows of the critically wounded. Outside, a new sign had been crafted identifying the building as the Hospital of the Martyrs.

'Gaddafi is a flea'

Not all of those who made Benghazi's uprising possible were civilians. Some were troops who defected.

On Wednesday, two pilots ejected from their fighter jets rather than follow orders. One of them was Capt. Abdul Salam Al Abdely.

The pilot's father, 77-year-old Attiya Moussa el Abdely, said his son told him from his hospital bed that he had decided to ditch his plane rather than strike targets in his home town.

"My son is a hero, and Gaddafi is a flea on the Libyan citizens," the elder Abdely said, his eyes red from weeping.

Back at the courthouse, Um Ahmed sat inside an office, the sounds of celebration from outside filling the air. But she said that she and her husband were still afraid. They fear that Gaddafi will take revenge before he falls, that without order the uprising will be hijacked and that foreign powers, specifically the United States, will not intervene until it's too late.

"Obama is talking as if there is time," Abu Ahmed said. "For us, today is the last day in our lives. Two to three days only means more people are going to be killed. What in the hell is the international community waiting for?"

Abu Abdul Hamid, a businessman, said the outlook for Benghazi is very simple. Now that Gaddafi is gone from the city, the people have no choice but to keep him out.

"He'll murder us if we let him take this city back. We'll die," Hamid said. "It's a point of no return."

Libyans Celebrate Victory in Misrata

Anti-Gaddafi Protesters Control Misrata: Witness

Thursday February 24, 2011

RABAT | - Anti-Libyan government militias took control of Misrata late on Thursday after evicting forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi from the Mediterranean coastal city, prompting street celebrations, a witness said.

Resident Mohamed Senoussi, 41, said protesters had overcome the security forces and taken full control of Misrata, about 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli, after a "fierce battle" near its airport.

"Calm returned to the city around four hours ago after intense fighting in the morning ... The people's spirits here are high, they are celebrating and chanting 'God is Greatest'," he told Reuters by telephone.

"The civilians are now organizing traffic, searching pedestrians for weapons. They have arrested some armed intruders believed to be from Tripoli. Every now and then, we hear gunshots but it's nothing like the intense exchanges earlier in the day," he added.

"There are rumors that government forces and mercenaries are trying to regroup at the city limits to launch new attacks but our armed youths are roaming the forests around the city where many are believed to be hiding."

An unspecified number of government forces and foreign mercenaries were killed after they stormed protesters near the city's airport earlier on Thursday, he said.

"Some were killed, others were arrested or surrendered. The protesters arrested 20 mostly African mercenaries and two Libyan soldiers. I have seen them in shackles," Senoussi said.

"The death toll among civilians is seven, mostly at the city's main medical facility, and around 25 were wounded."

He said civilians were trying to re-organize things by setting up committees to run the city.

"A lot of people have left their homes to donate blood, others came with food supplies," he said.

Witnesses in Tripoli have told Reuters there was no sign Gaddafi's forces had lost control there: uniformed police were directing traffic as usual, state television was broadcasting and pro-Gaddafi supporters held a rally in the city.

Blood and a Man's Madness in Libya

Mercenaries Gather in Tripoli for Final Battle

By Donald Macintyre
The Independent
Friday, 25 February 2011

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were yesterday said to be launching fierce counter-attacks as the Libyan uprising edged closer to the capital and the dictator chose to blame Osama bin Laden and teenagers on hallucinogenic drugs for the rebellion.

Amid ominous descriptions of groups of pro-Gaddafi militiamen gathering on the roads around Tripoli, there were reports that the minaret of a mosque in Zawiya – 30 miles west of Tripoli, where protesters had claimed victory – was being pounded by heavy weapons. Troops were said to be filling the streets of Sabratha, 50 miles to the west of the capital. A Libyan newspaper reported that in Zawiya 10 people had been killed, and a witness told the BBC that pro-Gaddafi forces had used machine-guns on unarmed residents in a main square of the city.

A doctor in Sabratha told The New York Times by telephone that after several days of a government crackdown, gunshots had sounded as troops occupied the town. Sabratha was locked down, with no shops open and the local headquarters of the police and the regime's revolutionary committees in ruins. "We are not afraid," the doctor said. "We are watching."

The forces loyal to the 42-year-old regime also attacked anti-government militias now controlling Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli and the last major gateway to the capital on the coastal road from that direction, according to the Associated Press, which said several people were killed in fighting near the city's airport. The town of Zuwarah, about 75 miles west of Tripoli, was also said to be in the hands of opposition militias.

With journalists largely confined to the east of the country – amid warnings from the country's deputy foreign minister that they would be considered al-Qa'ida collaborators if they travelled without authorisation – most reports were difficult to confirm. The efforts to strike back against dissidents who have consolidated control of eastern Libya, including the country's second city, Benghazi, came as Colonel Gaddafi made his second broadcast in as many days, this time in a rambling telephone interview with state television. He was not shown.

Some Libyans interpreted his tone as a result of him realising that his threats on Wednesday had failed to stem the uprising. He purported to offer condolences to the families of those who had died – as many as 2,000, according to France's leading human rights official – before appealing for calm and insisting that the person responsible was the al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, a "criminal... an enemy who is manipulating the people".

In an indication of the strength of the uprising in Zawiya, which he admitted at one point was "slipping away from us", he addressed many of his remarks to its citizens, appealing to them to "stop your children, take them away from Bin Laden, the pills will kill them". On the young anti-government protesters in general, he said: "Their ages are 17, they give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their coffee, their Nescafe."

In an even more bizarre passage the Libyan leader claimed that only he had "moral authority" over the country and added: "I am like the Queen of England. I have jurisdictions."

But Colonel Gaddafi also showed every sign of marshaling thousands of mercenaries, many from sub-Saharan Africa, and irregular forces to defend his redoubt in Tripoli, which also appeared to remain in a state of lockdown. Witnesses said that thousands of these forces were massing on roads to the capital.

One suggested that the scenes were reminiscent of Somalia with gangs of armed men in makeshift uniforms brandishing machine-guns, and unlike police, military units and army officers who have defected to join the protesters, were apparently willing to carry out the dictator's threat on Wednesday to defend the regime to "the last drop of blood".

Dozens of checkpoints operated by the pro-regime militias reportedly lined the road to Tripoli from the west, with the paramilitaries manning them demanding not only proof of identity but also convincing displays of loyalty to a leader facing a gradually mounting wave of international condemnation. "You are trying to convince them you are a loyalist," one resident told the paper. "The second they realise that you are not, you are done for."

In Benghazi, where the rebellion started and where "people's committees" are starting to run the city, a Reuters correspondent was shown about 12 people being held in a courthouse as "mercenaries". Libya's long-serving Interior Minister, General Abdel Fatah Younes al-Abidi, told CNN on Wednesday that he had resigned after the people of Benghazi were mown down with machine-guns. The former justice minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, who has also defected, said that Colonel Gaddafi would never go willingly.

The Arrival of a post-Secular Age?

Secular Revolutions, Religious Landscapes

By Shatha Almutawa, University of Chicago
February 24 2011

While the Middle East uprisings have not revolved around religion, faith has not been absent from Arab scenes of protest in the last two months. God and scripture are invoked by revolutionaries and those who oppose them for the simple reason that Arab dialects and ways of life are infused with religion.

To an outside observer the revolts of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain might appear to be entirely secular, but Arabic Twitter and Facebook feeds are brimming with prayers, some formulaic and some informal, asking God to aid protesters and remove oppressors. Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are shared on Facebook walls. One blogger titled his post: “A saying of the prophet about President Qaddafi.” In the quoted hadith Prophet Muhammed warns of a time when trivial men will speak for the people.

After Libyan president Moammar Al-Qaddafi ordered brutal attacks on demonstrators, leaving thousands dead and even more wounded, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi urged the Libyan army to kill Qaddafi. “I say to my brothers and sons who are soldiers and officers in the Libyan Army to disobey when (the government) gives orders to kill the people using warplanes,” the prominent Sunni scholar said, according to UPI. Soldiers have already defected in large numbers, and the pro-democracy army has taken hold of many Libyan cities.

In every part of the Arab world religious spaces such as mosques and churches have been stages for demonstrators as well as opposition. In the United Arab Emirates an activist was arrested after giving a speech at a mosque in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. In his speech he invited worshippers to join him in performing a prayer for the Egyptian protesters.

In Egypt marches began at mosques after Friday prayers, and inside them imams gave speeches in favor of or opposition to the uprising. Egyptians are donating blood at mosques near the Libyan border. In Bahrain pro-democracy and pro-government protesters demonstrated outside Manama’s Al-Fateh Mosque as well as at Pearl Roundabout.

Even though religion is not the driving force behind the revolutions, religious leaders continue to defend protest in speeches that are disseminated via YouTube. Dr. Tareq Al-Suwaidan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, gave a speech in which he urged Arabs to continue demanding freedom, human rights and an end to corruption. He challenged the governments’ claim that revolutions will lead to instability and insecurity, and that new freedoms would lead to chaos. “The west is living with these rights in stability and security, and they are making progress,” he said. “Our religion calls for these rights. Our religion guaranteed them to us.”

Al-Suwaidan’s tone is one of disbelief at dictators’ illogical statements and the contradictions in their claims. But his ridicule of government leaders is tame in comparison to the jokes made by Arabs all over the world following Al-Qaddafi’s speech. The jokes, too, involve religion. “Al-Qaddafi’s demands are simple—only that the people should say: There is no God but Al-Qaddafi,” Nael Shahwan tweeted in Arabic. Mohammad Awaad wrote, “Qaddafi ‘the god’ is a natural result of a media that has become accustomed to not saying no to a president, as if he is never wrong.” He continued, “I believe we have 22 gods”—one for each Arab country.

The opposition, too, is armed with religious rhetoric, but mosque, Qur’an, and hadith have been central in the Arab world’s struggle for freedom and democracy. Religious leaders as well as lay people have found that the language of religion is also the language of revolution. After all religion is very often the spirit of Arab life, and the inspiration for most of its endeavors—jokes and revolutions included.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Qaddafi Clan's Private Militias

Qaddafi Massing Forces in Tripoli as Rebellion Spreads

By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
February 23, 2011

BAIDA, Libya — As rebellion crept closer to the capital and defections of military officers multiplied, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi called on thousands of mercenaries and irregular security forces on Wednesday to defend his bastion in Tripoli, in what residents said was a desperate and dangerous turn in the week-old uprising.

Distrustful of even his own generals, Colonel Qaddafi has for years quietly built up this ruthless and loyal force. It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries he has helped train and equip. Many are believed to have fought elsewhere, in places like Sudan, but he has now called them back.

Witnesses said thousands of members of this irregular army were massing on roads to the capital, Tripoli, where one resident described scenes evocative of anarchic Somalia: clusters of heavily armed men in mismatched uniforms clutching machine guns and willing to carry out orders to kill Libyans that other police and military units, and even fighter pilots, have refused.

Some residents of Tripoli said they took the gathering army as a sign that the uprising might be entering a decisive stage, with Colonel Qaddafi fortifying his main stronghold in the capital and protesters there gearing up for their first organized demonstration after days of spontaneous rioting and bloody crackdowns.

The fall of other cities to rebels on Wednesday, including Misurata, 130 miles east of the capital, left Colonel Qaddafi more embattled — and his opponents emboldened.

“A message comes to every mobile phone about a general protest on Friday in Tripoli,” one resident of Tripoli said. Colonel Qaddafi’s menacing speech to the country on Tuesday — when he vowed to hunt down opponents “house by house” — increased their determination “100 percent,” the resident said.

Dozens of checkpoints operated by a combination of foreign mercenaries and plainclothes militiamen lined the road west of Tripoli for the first time, witnesses said, requiring not only the presentation of official papers but also displays of flag-waving, fist-pumping enthusiasm for Colonel Qaddafi, who has long fashioned himself as a pan-African icon.

“You are trying to convince them you are a loyalist,” one resident said, “and the second they realize that you are not, you are done for.”

The overall death toll so far has been impossible to determine. Human rights groups say they have confirmed about 300 deaths, though witnesses suggested the number was far larger. On Wednesday, Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy — the former colonial power with longstanding ties — said that nationwide more than 1,000 people were probably dead in the strife.

Egyptian officials said Wednesday that nearly 30,000 people — mostly Egyptians working in Libya — had fled across their border. People fleeing west into Tunisia said the rebellion was now taking off far from its origins just a week ago in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, which fell over the weekend.

There were reports for the first time of protests in the southern city of Sabha, considered a Qaddafi stronghold.

On Wednesday, in addition to the northwestern city of Misurata, protesters claimed victory in nearby Zawai, where local army units are said to have joined them. Some said there had been intense fighting in the past few nights in the town of Sabratha, home of an important Roman archaeological site 50 miles west of Tripoli, where witnesses on Wednesday reported a heavy deployment of machine-gun toting foreign mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalists known as revolutionary committees.

“The revolutionary committees are trying to kill everyone who is against Qaddafi,” said a doctor fleeing Sabratha, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals if he returned.

But amid spreading rebellion and growing defections by top officials, diplomats and segments of the regular army, Colonel Qaddafi’s preparations for a defense of Tripoli also reframed the question of who might still be enforcing his rule. It is a puzzle that military analysts say reflects the singular character of the society he has shaped — half tribal, half police state — for the past 41 years.

“It is all shadow and mirrors and probably a great deal of corruption as well,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Georgetown who has studied the Libyan military.

Colonel Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup, has always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to do the same thing to him. About half its relatively small 50,000-member army is made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many of its battalions are organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi.

Colonel Qaddafi’s own clan dominates the air force and the upper level of army officers, and they are believed to have remained loyal to him, in part because his clan has the most to lose from his ouster.

Other clans, like the large Warfalla tribe, have complained that they have been shut out of the top ranks, Professor Sullivan noted, which may help explain why they were among the first to turn on Colonel Qaddafi.

Untrusting of his officers, Colonel Qaddafi built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that report primarily to his family. It is designed to check the army and in part to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure is his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which mainly guards him personally.

Then there are the militia units controlled by Colonel Qaddafi’s seven sons. A cable from the United States Embassy in Libya released by WikiLeaks described his son Khamis’s private battalion as the best equipped in the Libyan Army.

His brother Sa’ad has reportedly used his private battalion to help him secure business deals. And a third brother, Muatassim, is Colonel Qaddafi’s national security adviser. In 2008 he asked for $2.8 billion to pay for a battalion of his own, to keep up with his brothers.

But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Qaddafi has deployed against the current insurrection is one believed to consist of about 2,500 mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he calls his Islamic Pan African Brigade.

Colonel Qaddafi began recruiting for his force years ago as part of a scheme to bring the African nations around Libya into a common union, and the mercenaries he trained are believed to have returned to Sudan and other bloody conflicts around Africa. But from the accounts of many witnesses Colonel Qaddafi is believed to have recalled them — and perhaps others — to help suppress the uprising.

Since the Libyan military withdrew from the eastern border, Egyptian officials said, tens of thousands of Egyptians — many of whom had worked in Libya’s oil-propelled economy — have fled back to Egypt. About 4,200 crossed over on Sunday, a similar number on Monday, and about 20,000 on Tuesday, when border security collapsed.

The Egyptian authorities said the migrants brought the bodies of three people killed in the crackdown on Benghazi, five people wounded by bullets and 14 others who were taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Many complained that they had been attacked and robbed by the mercenaries, officials said.

Mustafa Said Ahmed, 26-year-old accountant who had worked in Benghazi, said in an interview that he saw 11 people killed by the mercenaries in “a massacre” after the noon prayer last Friday.

The country’s long-serving interior minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, said Wednesday that he had decided to resign after the people of Benghazi were shot down with machine guns.

In an interview with CNN, he said he had argued against Colonel Qaddafi’s intention to use airplanes to bomb that city, the nation’s second largest, warning that it would kill thousands. State media, however, claimed he had been kidnapped by “gangs.”

The justice minister has already resigned for similar reasons. Two Libyan bombers diverted to Malta rather than bomb civilians, and on Wednesday a Libyan newspaper reported that a third Libyan military pilot had downed his bomber in the eastern province rather than carry out a mission to bomb Benghazi.

After nightfall on Wednesday, witnesses reported sporadic bursts of gunfire around Tripoli neighborhoods. But they said the streets seemed eerily deserted. Green Square, which had been a rallying point for pro-Qaddafi forces, had only a few hundred left in it. And the state television headquarters, which had been heavily guarded, was left almost unattended.

Elsewhere, there were signs that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were refortifying. For the first time, witnesses said, at least four army tanks had rolled into the streets of the capital.

Kareem Fahim reported from Baida, Libya, and David D. Kirkpatrick from the Tunisian border with Libya. Reporting was contributed by Sharon Otterman, Mona El-Naggar, Neil MacFarquhar and Liam Stack from Cairo.