"You are not going to war against the youth, but against the religion of Allah." The statement, which appeared Sunday night on the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) Facebook page, was attributed to Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, AST's emir and the founder of the al Qaeda-linked Tunisian Islamic Combatant Group (TICG). Coming after Tunisian authorities suppressed AST preaching events in multiple cities, the text is part of an escalating war of words and deeds between AST, Tunisian security forces, and the Islamist Ennahda-led government over the past several months, compounded by the September 14, 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Al-Tunisi's statement also threatened, in subtle but unmistakable tones, a jihad against Tunisian authorities.
The risk of open conflict may have become even more likely Wednesday after Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that AST's annual conference in the city of Kairouan, scheduled for Sunday, would not be allowed to take place, though an AST spokesman vowed Thursday that the event would go forward. But the immediate spark came when Tunisian security forces began striking homemade landmines in the rugged region around Jebel Chaambi near the country's western border with Algeria.
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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In early February, a car made its way along the winding road from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to Dhale, a dusty mountain town of traditional mud-brick houses. As the car sped toward its destination, the flags and checkpoints increased in regularity with every passing mile.
Yemen's flag is made up of three horizontal stripes of red, white, and black. Those flying from the rooftops along the roadside sported an additional blue triangle dotted with a single red star. The flags, a remnant of the south's independent past, are a symbol of defiance; the checkpoints, manned by soldiers from Yemen's north, a source of simmering tension.
"See," said Fatima, an Adeni college professor, as the car stopped at yet another checkpoint so that a uniformed youth, his cheek bulging with the narcotic qat leaf and an AK-47 casually slung across his shoulder, could take a look inside. "How can they say that this is not an occupation?"
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has finally issued dates for the new parliamentary elections, due now to begin April, and end in July, over staggered rounds. Voices within the opposition have begun to splinter apart over participation; the presidential candidate that never was, Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, has already called for a boycott. Looming in the distance, however, is the key reality around what the country is going to look like in a few months time -- and if a civilian led Egypt is still a reality. Indeed, ElBaradei recently reminded the international community of the stakes in this regard, explicitly indicating that holding elections in April would risk placing the country into a state of "total chaos and instability," resulting in a military intervention. He said, "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the army] have a national duty to intervene."
ElBaradei was not advocating the intervention of the military -- he was simply pointing that it may happen as a natural consequence. Nevertheless, a certain scenario has been making the rounds around some elements within the political elite in Egypt's opposition -- some, it should be noted, rather than all or most. It goes something like this:
Morsi has made a mess of the transition to democracy, and even though he was elected, he has failed in his duty. The political turmoil and polarization are proof enough of that -- the economic disaster that is about to fall upon Egypt will simply be the logical consequence of all of that, and will ensure that the military intervenes to save the country. When the military does so, the Muslim Brotherhood might put up a little bit of a struggle, but they'll fold pretty quickly in order to assure themselves a political future in Egypt. Alternatively, they might fight a little bit, but the military will make short shrift of them, and they will then be shunted underground, ending for once and for all this abysmal experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt. The military, having understood the mistakes it made during Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's reign, will be far more suave this time around, and will set the stage for a new constitution, and a new presidential election, before it departs the scene. The international community will cluck, cluck, perhaps, but will quietly be satisfied, as they also never wanted an Islamist regime to emerge. The opposition will then provide an alternative leadership that can lead Egypt forward.
It is an interesting scenario, to say the least -- but it is not terribly realistic, let alone ethical. The military may indeed intervene, as it might under any regime that contributes to the instability of Egypt -- it did so under Mubarak, and it may do so again. However, Morsi is not Mubarak. The military intervened when it was clear the overwhelming majority of the country wanted Mubarak to go -- demonstrating in massive protests, in which millions of people over several weeks showed that they would not accept anything less than his departure. The same cannot be said for Morsi. He is certainly unpopular -- and with very good reason -- but the vast majority of Egyptians haven't shown they want him to have the same fate as Mubarak.
If the military were to intervene, moreover, no one should expect it to be a walk in the park. When Mubarak was forced to resign by the military, his own establishment, including those who had the arms, turned against him. The police force would not fight against the military, and that was that. In a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood is forced from power -- a movement, living in an existential moment, that already feels the world is out to get it -- it is hard to see the MB not reacting with force. It would eventually lose against the combined forces of the military and the police -- but it would not be pretty. It would be a betrayal of the revolution of Tahrir forever, if any "revolutionaries" wanted such a bloodbath in order to put aside their political opponents.
If the military then takes control, the assumption that this leadership would be that much different from the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not certain, to say the least. The former SCAF under Tantawi, regardless of the media assertions to the contrary, was incredibly popular in Egypt. Among the political elite, whether opposition or MB, it had a varied reputation -- but across the country, the military's standing was solid. It may thus believe that there are actually not many errors to correct for, and another transitional phase may not prove to be all that much better than the last one. Of course, no one knows how it will behave -- only that in general, the military will look out for it's own interests, which include the stability of Egypt, as well as the fortification of military independence and autonomy.
To assume that the opposition leadership has the ability to provide a genuine alternative that can steer the country better may turn out to be wishful thinking -- in general, political leadership in Egypt has been indescribably lacking for the masses of Egyptians. This goes just as much for the opposition, which does not enjoy as much blame as the MB for the political turmoil, as it is not in power -- but is still hardly stellar by comparison.
What is generally true is that the international community would, in all likelihood, cluck, cluck, and let things unfold as it will -- as long as Egypt remains stable. The failure of Egypt is simply not an option, for broader political, economic, and security considerations.
All of this should not come as a surprise to any political force within Egypt -- whether the opposition or the MB. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the way to avoid this outcome is not in the opposition's court. Even if it were to disavow, and actively be against any military involvement in politics, its weight is negligible in that regard -- the military will come or not come according to its own calculus, not that of the opposition. The Egyptian presidency is what makes the difference in Egypt in terms of averting the realization of this scenario. The presidency must be aware that within the opposition, the broad majority would want to avoid any further turmoil in Egypt. They no longer need political allies who are simply willing to back up the government -- the presidency need partners who are willing to serve in a genuine national salvation government that resolves the political turmoil on the one hand, and sets into motion an economic recovery immediately. As the days go on, that all becomes more and more difficult -- and the likely scenarios become less and less palatable, for everyone.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter@hahellyer.
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Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution's "martyrs," some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man's corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution's dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.
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As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO's air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled -- often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya's, as well as obvious differences in the countries' sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya's revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war's four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war's most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi -- a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city's defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors -- all with important implications for Syria.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Misrata Military Council
Nearly a year after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a transition agreement, Yemen risks significant localized violence and territorial fragmentation. While politicians and the international community in the capital prepare for national dialogue, Zaydi rebels, known as the Houthis, and Salafi fighters associated with the Islamist party, Islah, are positioning for further skirmishes in the North. Already, clashes during the last months have killed dozens of people and inflammatory rhetoric by both sides is a harbinger of violence to come. In the South, separatist sentiment remains high and there is no agreement on how to effectively include the southern movement, a loose and divided coalition calling for immediate southern independence or at a minimum greater autonomy, into the dialogue process. Attacks by al Qaeda and its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, are on the rise, with assassinations of over 60 military-security personnel in 2012 alone. The minister of defense has escaped assassination on at least six different occasions.
The boy wears a white headband, Rambo-style, and an undershirt that shows off his muscled arms. He says he's 17, and looks it. He should be hanging out on a corner in some Syrian village, sneaking smiles at the passing girls, not standing amid the swirling dust of a refugee camp boasting about his time as a fighter.
"I was with the Free Army, and I brought my family here," he says -- to Jordan, to the Zaatari camp, near the northern city of Mafraq. "I stayed for one week, then went back to Syria. The bad situation had got worse, and people were being slaughtered with knives. The people I was working with had fled to Lejja [in the mountains, to regroup].... I saw that there was nothing for me to do there, and so I came back."
"Most of the young people here, they are with the Free Army, and there are no weapons for them, no weapons at all."
The boy's conversation follows a script that has become quickly familiar: He is asked about what brought him here, and answers with a plea for weapons. He wants anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and foreign troops enforcing a no-fly zone over his home in southern Syria.
The United States must shift the paradigm on Syria. Escalating tensions between Syria and Turkey are the latest indicator that Syria's crisis is spiraling out of control. With Russia now pulled into the fray, the conflict has the potential to escalate significantly. Horrific violence inside Syria has dramatically increased civilian death tolls and sparked an exponential rise in refugee flows. The current policy debate largely focuses on the relative merits of providing (directly or indirectly) more sophisticated weapons to the opposition versus the establishment of a protected safe zone in northern Syria. Yet, these tactical military interventions carry significant downside risks. The deepening crisis between Syria and Turkey amid Syria's worsening civil conflict presents an important opportunity for U.S. leadership and diplomacy. Washington should seize on these latest developments to build a coalition for bringing an end to the violence and establishing a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Further militarization of the Syrian conflict would exacerbate an already volatile situation on the ground, deepening and protracting Syria's sectarian civil war. Far from providing relief for innocent civilians, fueling the conflict with more arms risks further endangering civilians. The armed opposition's inability to unify and its continued radicalization as well as enduring divisions between key patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscore the inherent risks of this option. Differences among Syria's various armed opposition groups, not to mention between Arabs and Kurds, could erupt into open hostilities in Syria's mounting chaos. Meanwhile, jihadist elements, while still a distinct minority, appear to be gaining influence.
In the pre-dawn blackness of September 12, I hurtled toward Tunis Carthage airport en route to Tripoli. I was looking forward to seeing my friend Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who had invited all nine members in our delegation representing the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Canadian government to his home for a Saturday night reception to talk about Libya's turbulent transition.
The high-speed Tunisian taxi driver, who doubles as a freelance currency trader, told me, "More Libyans are coming every day. I'm making lots of money. It's getting worse." I thought for a minute about his unscientific sample and wondered, "How bad is it?" At Tunisian customs, I was all alone. The immigration official spent too much time half-heartedly scrutinizing my passport, then looked up and said, "You came in yesterday?" "Yes," I replied. "It was not a good day for you."
As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
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"There is no animosity between the authorities and the Islamist current. The brothers in Sinai know this...and the [Rafah] operation in this frame makes no sense. It is a criminal act and we all condemn it," said Magdi Salem, one of the leaders of what was known once as al-Jihad Organization of Egypt. Salem, along with three others, arrived in the Sinai on a mission last week: to limit the scope of the conflict and isolate the perpetrators of the August 5 Rafah massacre, in which an armed group killed 16 Egyptian border guards and then infiltrated Israel. Why are the Post-Jihadists in the sensitive and turbulent Sinai environment? In fact, this is not the first interaction between Salafi-Jihadists and Post-Jihadists in that geo-strategically sensitive and marginalized peninsula, and it certainly won't be the last.
The uneasy dalliance between the Egyptian state and the jihadists over the Sinai dates back to the Taba and Nuweiba simultaneous bombings in October 2004. After that disaster, the State Security Investigations (SSI) and the Central Security Forces (CSF) had almost no information about the perpetrators and therefore conducted a brutal crackdown in North Sinai. They arrested around 3,000 people, and took women and children related to suspects hostage until the suspects surrendered. One of the detainees from 2004 reported, "they electrocuted us in the genitals for a day or so before asking any questions. Then the torture continues during and after the interrogations. Many of the young-men swore revenge."
As international attention remains focused on the fighting in Syria, Turkey's military has been fighting lethal battles on its southern border with the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war against Turkey for almost three decades. Just last week, nine people were killed when a car packed with explosives blew up close to a police station in Gaziantep, a city around 30 miles from the Syrian border. In response, the National Security Council (MGK) convened yesterday to discuss the recent PKK attacks and issued a statement vowing to avert the risks to its national security emanating from the violence in Syria. While the government has come under increased criticism for its Kurdish policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placing the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara suspects the PKK is exploiting the chaos in Syria, and that Assad is supplying it with arms in retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition.
The spike in the PKK's terrorist activity in Turkey comes amid mounting concerns in Ankara that the PKK and its affiliates are gaining ground in Turkey's southern neighbor. Particularly alarming was the capture of several towns along the Turkish border by the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD). Turkey watched nervously as Kurdish groups took control of the towns after the withdrawal of Assad forces and hoisted the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings, along with posters of the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country's president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.
The power struggle between Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brother has been likened to the life and death struggle between the cobra and mongoose. In the event the analogy was misleading in that the conflict was relatively short and its outcome anti-climactic. The Muslim Brotherhood, apparently now led by President Mohamed Morsi, unceremoniously shunted Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his officer entourage off to various forms of retirement without so much as a whimper in response.
Like Hosni Mubarak before him, Tantawi's seeming impregnable power had been based on the weak foundations of patronage and punishment, dished out in Tantawi's case to the officers under his command. Obviously aware of resentment and disaffection within the military, Tantawi, again similar to Mubarak, sought to repress it by draconian punishment of defectors, by ladling out ever larger doses of patronage, including salary increases, bonuses and yet more plum "secondment" sinecures, and by mobilizing dependent editors and publishers to suppress media criticism of him and the SCAF. Ultimately these tactics were to no avail. Mismanagement of the political transition added the insult of degradation of the military's reputation to the injury of its de-professionalization through more than two decades of Tantawi's command. Like the country as a whole as regards the Mubarak regime, the officer corps had finally had enough of the nature and the consequences of corrupt, patrimonial rule of the military.
On Sunday President Mohamed Morsi issued a new constitutional declaration making major changes in Egypt's current balance of power. According to the new declaration, the president now enjoys all powers that were vested in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), including legislative. The president sent the defense minister and general commander of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chief of staff of the armed forces, General Sami Anan, and the heads of the air force and navy into retirement. Although the reshuffle comes in the aftermath of a major a assault by militants in Sinai, it is unrealistic to think of the latest security arrangements as spur of the moment choices in reaction to the attacks. The president's decisions probably have been brewing for some time given the careful selection of succeeding generals.
The recent changes may be the most important military purges since former President Anwar Sadat's elimination of the "power centers" in the early 1970s. Faced with mounting opposition to his presidency, Sadat often collided with his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser's generals especially Minister of Defense Mahmoud Fawzi, head of General Intelligence Ali Sabri, and Minister of Interior Sha'rawi Goma. The strong men showed limited loyalty to the then new president and worked to curtail his powers. However, Sadat managed to depose of the disloyal generals when a window of opportunity opened in 1971. Communication between the president and his second tier generals had been crucial to the success of the purge. Morsi's recent efforts bear many similarities to the process that took place four decades ago.
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Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 1952 Egyptian revolution, when the Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the last king of Egypt. That revolution, within 18 months, led to the institution of a new regime, dominated by the military establishment. In a couple of days, it will have been 18 months since the people of Egypt revolted against the inheritors of that regime, which still remains dominated by the military. That military establishment now has a choice to make, for itself and the future of Egypt. Should it remain in a privileged, guardian like position that prevails over civilian authority indefinitely, at least in particular areas? Or should it make preparations to engage in what would be a truly revolutionary change, and hand over the keys to power not just symbolically, but completely?
In the past 18 months, the military establishment, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has done well. It emerged from the uprising as the heroic institution that stood by the Egyptian people, rather than slaughter them when Egyptians revolted against one of its own, former President Hosni Mubarak. Its confidence rating, according to recurring polls has not dipped below 80 percent. The state media, the main source of information in the country, is still trusted and gives a glowing review of the military. Its opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the other anti-military rule activists, has been no match. As the SCAF handed over power to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, it enjoyed its safe exist from the limelight, and has now redeployed to where it has wanted to be -- back to the good old days, away from public scrutiny and back to the barracks.
Motivated by President Bashar al-Assad's terrible murder of civilians and (or) the strategic opportunity to undermine Iran's staunchest Arab ally, both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States' strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, either of which could potentially motivate military action. But good intentions do not make good policy.
Deposing Assad, weakening Iran, and stopping government-sanctioned murder are all laudable objectives worthy of U.S. investment, but the proposition of using military force to achieve those goals must be weighed against the risks and costs of doing so. And perhaps the singular lesson of the last decade of foreign policy is that the unintended consequences of well-intentioned military action can be massive and outweigh the achievements of noble policy choices. The wisdom and justice of U.S. foreign policy decisions is a function of the consequences they produce, not the hopeful intentions with which they are initiated.
There are three basic problems with the proposals for military intervention in Syria.
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Tripoli's visual landscape has transformed dramatically over the past two weeks. Candidate portraits, campaign billboards, party platforms, and voting instructions have been pasted, plastered, and positioned everywhere. Until recently, a different kind of sign had dominated Tripoli: the shahid (martyr) memorial. From billboards to handmade posters, these were erected by communities and families in remembrance of those killed by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. There have also been countless have-you-seen-me? type posters for the thousands of Libyans still missing from the 2011 war. But, the graphic cacophony of election propaganda has since drowned out the missing and martyr posters. Though, this visual transformation is not indicative of a total transition from armed revolutionary politics to civil electoral politics.
Here's the good news from Libya on the eve of Saturday's elections: there is little motivation to steal them. The bad news is the reason why. Libya's next government will still be seen by many as just another, if more robust, interim government. Yes, the national assembly will appoint a new cabinet and, more importantly, a commission to draft Libya's post-Qaddafi constitution. These processes, however, will take place under duress. I recently asked an Amazigh (Berber) writer if he thought his mother tongue, Tamazight, would become an official national language in the new constitution. "Of course it will," he insisted. "Now that we have guns, they have to listen to us."
In March 2011, I paid a visit to Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), located on the banks of the Nile in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Two things immediately struck me. First, there was a tank parked outside of a structure that hardly seemed to be a military site. Second, the court was a beehive of activity. Since at the time Egypt had no constitution, I could not figure out why the employees were so busy.
Now it is clear that I was too quick to dismiss what I saw both inside and outside the building. The SCC's actions today, occurring in the context that they do, reshape Egypt's transition process -- so much so that some Egyptians will likely wonder if they are in any "transition process" at all. That concern is justified. The "process" part was already dead. Now the "transition" part is dying.
Using a bright blue pen, the young man behind the cash register in the kebab shop on the outskirts of Tripoli began to methodically scratch out the face of Muammar al-Qaddafi from his stack of one-dinar notes. About halfway through the pile, he greeted a bill that had already been defaced with a happy nod and smile of satisfaction. After exhausting the one-dinar notes he turned to the 20s, and began surgically excising a miniature Brother Leader from a summit group photo.
Prior to February 17, 2011 everything in Qaddafi's Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was physically painted a shade of light green to symbolize the political system of stateless government laid out in the Brother Leader's Green Book. (The term jamahiriya was coined by Qaddafi and is usually loosely translated as "state of the masses" or "peopledom.") Today, the country is awash in the red, green and black tricolor scheme of the pre-Qaddafi era Libyan flag, which has been adopted by the revolutionaries as their standard. In Tripoli, where several neighborhoods had loyalist rather than revolutionary reputations, these coats of fresh paint and the common practice of doctoring car license plates to cover the word jamahiriya might raise an eyebrow. But what of the kebab seller's currency handiwork, which appeared to be a private act of conviction?
From the outside, the picture in Libya looks unremittingly bleak. A near daily chronicle of rampaging militias, conflict and chaos headlines coverage by the wire services. But perhaps a casualty of the closure of foreign bureaus and the lesser interest that exists when no U.S. boots are on the ground, some perspective is lacking from the often barebones news reports.
Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya's popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the "everyone loves a winner" category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.
But is the mere fact of the revolution being broadly popular enough to make it right? Is it a sufficient platform to produce a secure and brighter future for Libya?
In spite of this deep and abiding popularity of its popular uprising, Libya finds itself in the midst of a national quarrel over its revolutionary narrative and new founding myth.
Those who specialize in European constitutional thought have often talked about the pouvoir constituant in a manner that often makes others' eyelids droop -- it leads to deeply abstract discussions, drawing heavily from dusty tomes that pepper discussions with French and Latin phrases, about where ultimate authority lies for issuing a constitution. But if journalists covering Egypt had taken a course in European constitutional thought -- and managed to stay awake -- they may have been a bit more hesitant before rushing out stories suggesting that Egypt is about to issue a "complementary constitutional declaration." Yes, there were efforts to fill in some of the holes left when the military surprised the country with an interim constitutional declaration a year ago. Yes, the Egyptian press was full of (often un-sourced) trial balloons suggesting the generals were just about to spring another surprise on the nation. And yes, the March 2011 "constitutional declaration" governing the transition is full of gaps and ambiguities and certainly leaves plenty of room for improvement. But it is going to be very hard to make changes to it, precisely because it is not clear where, what, or who the pouvoir constituant is in Egypt today.
Let us try to restrain our most of our philosophizing impulses (and temptation to insert erudite foreign phrases) and get practical by trying to answer three pressing questions: Does Egypt need a complementary constitutional declaration? If so, what should it say? Who could issue it?
The May 23 Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) may prove to be a crucial juncture in the Iranian nuclear crisis. The talks could lead to a compromise with Iran while a lack of compromise could lead to an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, and possibly a costly regional war involving the United States.
There is reason to be pessimistic. The Iranian regime, an opponent of U.S. interests in the Middle East, a supporter of terrorism, and a gross violator of human rights, is hardly trustworthy. Iranian officials, who have appeared to be more compromising and flexible recently, may well be buying Iran more time to make advances on the nuclear program.
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Yemen's recently installed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi surprised many observers by moving swiftly to establish control over the battered nation's military. His efforts, backed by an unusually assertive United Nations mediation effort, offer a rare glimpse of hope for a nation battered by more than a year of instability and political conflict.
Few believed that the new government would be able to dislodge the entrenched power of the family of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But Hadi has already moved to sideline two prominent members of that family faction. Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Saleh's half brother and commander of the air force, was "promoted" into a position of impotence. Tarik Saleh, Saleh's nephew and commander of a powerful brigade encircling Sanaa, was offered a new posting in the remote eastern desert province of Hadramaut.
Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) warmly accepted the international community's military and political support for dislodging the Qaddafi government, and vowed to build a new state that would respect human rights. But it seems to be veering off course. Not only is it rejecting international human rights monitoring and the ICC's jurisdiction, but more troubling still, it has passed some shockingly bad laws, mimicking Qaddafi laws criminalizing political dissent and granting blanket immunity to any crimes committed in "support" of the revolution.
The NTC has a lot on its hands, and building a new administration from the ground up is no small feat. Its biggest challenge has been asserting authority over the armed groups in most towns, villages and city neighborhoods who are responsible for most abuses in post-Qaddafi Libya. The militias hold about 5,000 of the country's roughly 8,000 detainees. Some have been held for up to a year, outside Libyan law, without any charge or judicial process. Numerous cases of torture and even deaths in custody have been documented.
Virtually nobody took this week's Syrian elections seriously. It is easy to understand the nearly universal skepticism about balloting in the midst of ongoing killing in a manifestly undemocratic regime. Even when regimes have the best intentions, elections held in such difficult circumstances are rarely credible -- and few believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the best intentions. A U.S. State Department spokesman declared that the balloting "bordered on the ludicrous."
But this misses the point. There is a very real political logic behind the conducting of these elections -- one familiar to decades of such elections under Arab authoritarian regimes, and one which points to the coming terrain of the unfolding political struggle in Syria. The significance of the seemingly insignificant elections lies in the crucial battle over expectations about the regime's future. Put simply, the elections are meant to signal that the regime is strong, and its downfall unthinkable. Even though results have not yet been announced, the elections demonstrate that the regime is in control, both of the process and the outcomes, and the political game must be played on their terms.
For most people in the world, retirement is a time of idleness and careful penny-pinching of pensions or savings. Senior Egyptian military officers, however, are not most people in the world. Upon retiring from his post, a senior officer in Egypt's military becomes a governor of a province, a manager of a town, or a head of a city neighborhood. Or he might run a factory or a company owned by the state or the military. He might even manage a seaport or a large oil company. Luckily for him, he also retains his Armed Forces pension, on top of the high salary for his new civilian job. This privileged group holds almost every high position in the state. Egypt is par excellence a republic of retired generals.
Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election is rapidly approaching, scheduled to begin at the end of May. Candidates of varied political stances are enthusiastically campaigning in media and touring the length of the country offering promises on everything from security to education to foreign policy. But amid this busy atmosphere, there is silence on the most sensitive and crucial question: Will any civilian winner be able to demilitarize the Egyptian state?
Last week's shutdown of Sanaa's airport by security forces seeking to reverse President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi's dismissal of top brass loyal to the ancien regime exemplified exactly where Yemen is stuck.
After three decades under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, elements within the transitional civilian government are eager to move forward, with ambitious plans to reform the country's legal and security infrastructure. But they lack the muscle to rein in the security forces, implicated in many of the worst human rights abuses during last year's uprising yet still operating their fiefdoms. Restoring law and order requires a major restructuring of those security forces and a strong dose of accountability for the killings of hundreds of peaceful protesters and indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.
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