Two years of a shrunken state

January 25 marked the two-year anniversary of the start of Egypt’s democratic uprising. Tomorrow we mark another date that is nearly as significant -- the drastic reduction of state authority in Egypt. It is not year clear how it will be rebuilt.

Several things happened on January 28, 2011: Mubarak’s feared police force was defeated on Qasr al-Aini bridge and saw its stations stormed across the city, breaking the state’s aura of power and the police's own confidence. Both police and citizens now know that a neighborhood or city, if sufficiently outraged, can overrun stations again, as we have seen this weekend in Port Said.

Secondly, many of the estimated 800 to 1000 violent deaths during the uprising happened that day, often in chaotic circumstances that would make it hard to ever prove to courtroom standards who was responsible for their deaths -- even if prosecutors and police had done a proper job investigating. Over the next two years, judges’ inability to convict any top security officials helped break the state's credibility.  Egyptians have lost faith in their legal system -- a problem exemplified by the upheaval triggered by Port Said case, where pretty much any set of verdicts would be rejected, violently, by one side or the other.

Thirdly, the Muslim Brothers joined the uprising, giving the Islamist group enough revolutionary credentials to contest and win elections. This set the stage for the polarization that now dominates Egyptian politics and discourages political factions from cooperating, even in a limited way, to reconstruct the state.

After two years of seeing unrest grow familiar, it’s worth reflecting on just how remarkable today's status quo is: the central traffic circle in the national capital has for most of the past two years been a state-free protest zone and a theater for street fighting -- and a constant annoying reminder to Egypt's successive post-uprising governments that they are not fully in control of the country. Usually this kind of situation ends in some way after a few days, weeks, or in rare cases months: the protesters give up, or they achieve their goals, or there's a crackdown, or civil war, or people agree to resolve their differences in a formal institution with rules like a parliament, or something.

Nothing like this has happened in Egypt.

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Islamists vs ex-colonels: Will radicals take over the Syrian insurgency as they did in Iraq?

The deadly attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi by presumed radical Islamists operating in Libya's post-civil-war vacuum are likely to make a significant impact on views of Syria's ongoing civil war. They will probably deepen concern over the rise of Islamists within Syria's rebel movement and the threat this will pose to post-war stability should the Assad regime fall.

Charles Levinson writing in the Wall Street Journal from northern Syria gives a fascinating glimpse at the interplay between rebel factions, particularly the social divide between them. I found it especially intriguing in light of my experience in a third Arab country, Iraq, where like Libya and Syria an insurgent movement was divided along Islamist and non-Islamist lines.

Levinson profiles one Syrian rebel, Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Ughaidy, whose CV is almost identical to the commanders of groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, or many smaller tribal militias: a mid-ranking former officer with close ties to the urban middle classes. Despite names that often sounded religious and some ties to organizations like the Muslim Brothers, these Iraqi groups did not have a particularly Islamic agenda, they had little apparent interest in radical Salafist theologies, and their commanders were drawn from the secular Saddam-era elites.

Col. Ughaidy's rival for the loyalties of the fighters in his part of Syria is Abdel Aziz Salama, a former honey merchant who leads the Islamist wing of the local rebel movement. Socially, if not necessarily ideologically, he resembles Iraqi al-Qaida commanders like Ahmed al-Dabash, a small-time preacher in a Baghdad slum blamed for carrying out the 2004 Ashura bombings in Karbala, or Omar Hadid, a former petty criminal who found religion and ended up leading the Islamists in Fallujah.

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President Morsi?

Mohamed Morsi’s apparent win is the latest conventional-wisdom-defying turnabout in Egyptian post-uprising politics. Pronounced dead by some after the June 14 parliament-dissolving court verdict and the presumption that Shafiq would win the presidency, the transition has just got out of its sarcophagus for a few more lurches around the burial chamber.

In looking at what brought the victory and what it will produce, I going to assume that the most detailed figures I’ve seen — those released by the Morsi campaign — are substantially correct. That’s a big “if”, but there is some corroboration. Also, the numbers should soon be verifiable. Even if you don’t trust the elections commission, both international observers and candidates’ representatives were allowed much more access to the adding up of votes from different stations than in May, from what I understand.

First, the turnout. Morsi’s numbers say that a supposedly dispirited electorate actually went to the polls in numbers about 10 percent higher than in the first round. Maybe it’s because the choices are now clear, and fear is a more potent motivator than hope. But if you look where the turnout is highest, this suggests rural machine politics on both sides.

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Random thoughts on early Egypt voting results

A few scattershot observations on Egypt's election results:

First -- voting behavior in transitional countries, when people's sense of political identity is still inchoate, is totally all over the place. What happened in "Islamist stronghold" Alexandria? Who are the Salafis For Sabahi?

Sabahi's surge notwithstanding, the run-off as of mid-afternoon still looks like it will be between the Brothers' Mohammed Mursi and ex-Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. If Hamdeen repeats his Alex performance in Cairo this may change.

[Update: It's Mursi vs. Shafiq. Sabahi did do very well in Greater Cairo, taking first place there as well. But it's not good enough to offset Shafiq in Delta provinces like Sharqiya and Menufiya.]

However, regardless of who pulls ahead, the margins for second place look like they're going to be around one or two percentage points -- meaning that the top two names indicate more about the randomness injected into the race by the pre-vote disqualifications than they really say about voter preferences. If Omar Suleiman were still in the race, for example, Shafiq and he might be relegated to vote-splitting also-rans. If Abu Ismail were still around, maybe Mursi would be a distant third -- or, alternately, maybe Abul Futuh or even Sabahi would have slipped down a few notches.

Pre-vote polls had suggested that the Brothers had lost considerable support since their parliamentary triumph last year. For the past several weeks I've talked to a lot of ex-FJP supporters, who voted for Brothers for parliament because they thought the group really cared about the masses or "feared God" and would not be corrupt. But they have decided since then that the Brothers are politicians like everyone else. I had thought that the leitmotif of this election might be Brotherhood voters going for Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (as a guy who speaks his mind) or for Amr Moussa (as a man with experience).

Actually, it looks like the leitmotif might be voters who went FJP for parliament but then didn't turn out at all on Wednesday and Thursday. People lost confidence in the Brothers. But the Brothers' excellent organization means that they still managed to produce enough pluralities where it counts.

[Based on final results, I see there was a big metropolis bias in my perception. Morsi's performance in Cairo was almost as bad as his performance in Alex. But he did very well in Upper Egypt.]

Some quick number crunching from jadaliyya.com's parliamentary summary and the excellent spreadsheet by @iyad_elbaghdadi and @GalalAmrG mirrored here by Moftasa. Math and errors are my own.

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The Brothers' Numbers

The Egyptian electoral commission’s decision to ban the country’s top three presidential candidates has made it very difficult to predict anything about the upcoming vote. However, once the initial shock from the surprise disqualification of Muslim Brother Khairat al-Shater, Mubarak right-hand man Omar Suleiman, and Salafi Hazem Abu Ismail dies down, we’re still dealing with the same electorate that in the November-January parliamentary elections gave nearly 40 percent of its vote to the Brothers and another 25 percent to the Salafis.  Does this mean that the Brothers merely have to put up their backup candidate, Mohammed Mursi, and let him catch the Islamist wave in al-Shater’s stead? Probably not, actually – some recent poll numbers suggest that the Brother’s popularity was already in rapid decline, and that although their support may have been broad, it wasn’t very deep.

Islamist parties typically perform best in the first competitive elections after a long period of authoritarian rule. Religious parties may have a hardcore ideological base but that’s not where most of their votes originate. Instead, many voters see in the religious groups their best hope for a dramatic change from politics-as-usual. But inevitably, the Islamists must confront the same challenges as any other political force must, encountering resistance, searching for unlikely bedfellows, handing out plum posts to supporters, and making compromises. Because of this, they are bound to disappoint. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers were likely to lose support from the moment that Saad al-Katatni took the chair of the People’s Assembly and banged his gavel on national television, while outside, nothing was changed.

Even so, the evaporation of support for the Brothers – assuming the latest poll numbers are even close to accurate – is remarkable. Reports of a recent survey by the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Center suggest that some 45 percent of those who backed the Brothers in parliament won’t vote for it in the next elections. Al-Shater was the first choice of only 5 percent of voters.

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Five January 25 gains that have (so far) survived the counter-revolution

As quite a few commentators have gloomily noted, an Egyptian counter-revolution appears to be in full swing. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces has vowed to step up its use of Emergency Law and demonstrating a willingness to crack down on street protesters, strikers, critics of the military, NGOs who receive foreign funding, and anyone else who might trouble their hold over the country. Newspapers are again being censored. The Interior Ministry seems to have successfully resisted real reform, at least for the time being. Supporters of the revolution are trying to count the tangible achievements of the January uprising and coming up short, sober observers are reminding us that those who create a revolution rarely get to determine its outcome, and some Edmund Burkes are surveying the scene and declaring that they knew all along that the naive youth of Facebook could never seriously shape the course of Egypt's future, except as pawns.

I would agree that the vision of Egypt's future articulated by protesters in Tahrir is still far from being realized. However, they have already accomplished far more than many would give them credit for doing. Some examples:

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More on Ultras, the Embassy, and the Friday of Not-Exactly-Putting-the-Revolution-Back-on-Track

The only surprising thing about the breach of the Israeli embassy in Cairo is that it never happened any time before in the past 30 years. In a city that abounds in isolated walled desert compounds, someone decided to put the most often marched-upon facility in Egypt in a quite ordinary apartment building in the heart of the city, whose defenses basically consist of however much force the security services choose to deploy on the street that particular day. Throughout the 1990s, at least once a year, students from nearby Cairo University staged a half-hearted attempt to storm the place. The hardcore "Ultra" football club fans who seemed to be a major contingent of yesterday's crowd may simply have been more persistant than your usual Cairo demonstrators -- partially because the self-styled "commandos of the revolution" (whose subculture is described by Ursula below) are used to fighting with police, and partially because they claimed to have one of their own dead to avenge, supposedly killed on Tuesday night post-match battle between Ahly club fans and police on Saleh Salem Road.


So, rather than being satisfied with a few hours of melee with the police, they kept up the battle until late into the night,

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Ancien regime tourism in Tripoli

In Tripoli, where the street fighting seems to be dying down, Tripolitanian families are out visiting sites associated with Qaddafi and his family. Kids dance, people shoot guns in the air, people shout at the people shooting guns in the air not to shoot guns because it sets a bad image for Libya, the gun shooters stop and act sober for a bit, and then a few minutes later start shooting again, and the show goes on.

Highlight #1: two extremely happy hegabbed university students coming down the stairs of Aisha Qaddafi's house, whooping and performing a rap of the story of the Libyan revolution. Highlight #2: Rifling through some of the regime's reading material, in particular the December 20, 2010, copy of Forbes, which I found outside a burnt-out conference room in a residential part of Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound, open to a paid Libya advertorial supplement. In the supplement (which I assume is not written by Forbes writers), there is a more-than-usually obsequious profile of Saadi al-Qaddafi, "The African Renaissance Young Man Who Wears Many Hats." "'Change is coming', he stated. 'Libya and Africa will not be the same in 10 years.'"

Libya: Can the rebels rule?

There's been a lot written about the difficulty that the rebel National Transitional Council may have consolidating control over a post-Qaddafi Libya, and the likelihood of splits — possibly bloody ones — between the different factions of the rebel movement. I think that the fears are legitimate, but the situation is not quite as dangerous as some might believe. I'm currently in Benghazi, where the rebel government had a fairly easy time establishing its authority in February and March thanks largely to a region-wide sense of neglect and persecution by the Qaddafi regime, so maybe I'm underestimating some of the difficulties. But here are my thoughts.
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Salafis in Tahrir

A few notes on yesterday's demonstration in Tahrir, generally viewed as an Islamist show of force. First, the numbers. Based on visual cues (beards, galabiyas), signs and slogans I'm guessing at least 90 percent of those in Tahrir were affiliated with the Islamists, and at least half of those were Salafi. I'm guessing also that this was one of the half dozen largest Tahrir "million" rallies since January. The square wasn't elbow-to-elbow all the way through, but it was elbow-to-elbow in some spots, and a lot of people stayed camped out on downtown streets where they had gone to pray. I understand why the numbers have alarmed revolutionaries who had come to think of the square as their own space.

There have been some reports that Salafis tried to forcefully take control of a speakers' stage, but the parts of the demonstration which I witnessed were peaceful. I saw no instances of bullying. Islamists and non-Islamists mingled and argued. I saw one angry anti-Islamist marching up Qasr al-Aini between ranks of weary demonstrators shouting "Egypt, my kind mother/I'm not leaving you to the Brothers!", yet she did not get much of a reaction.

The Salafis' slogans were provocative.

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Bringing Tahrir to Upper Egypt

I've written down some notes from my brief trip last week to the Akhmim district of Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt, also referenced in this week's Arabist podcast. I accompanied a Cairo-based party activist back to his family village to see how revolutionaries from the capital were reaching out to the 50+ percent of Egypt's voters who live in rural areas, in advance of parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for November.

Elections in the countryside have traditionally been very hotly contested, without being ideological. Politicians frequently say that the decisive factors are "asabiya" (family solidarity) and "services," meaning government-funded projects. Voters try to candidates into office who have some sort of personal connection to them, be it family or regional or both, who also have the clout to ensure that their village or neighborhood gets a good share of state funds. The candidates who have traditionally performed best are "NDP independents" -- local ruling-party politicians who ran against and defeated the official candidates, but then were welcomed back into the official fold soon after their victory. Now that there was no longer a ruling party, I wanted to get a sense of how other political forces might try to fill the vacuum.

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Now what? Senusso-Fascists?

It’s always fun to watch the leaps which the American ideological right will make in trying to cast Muslims as radicals. To whit, this new allegation by John Rosenthal in the National Review about the supposed jihadi nature of Libya's rebels...

There is a clear overlap between the [Libyan jihadist] Islamists and the monarchists, inasmuch as the deposed King Idris I was himself the head of the Senussi brotherhood, which the authors [of a French report] describe as "an anti-Western Muslim sect that practices an austere and conservative form of Islam." The monarchists are thus, more precisely, "monarchists-fundamentalists."

Uh, "anti-Western" in the sense that Mussolini was Western. The Senussis fought against the Italian colonization of Libya, but King Idris sided with the Allies during WW2, formed a kingdom under their patronage, and throughout his reign was arguably one of the more pro-Western monarchs in the Arab world. That was one reason why Qaddafi was able to overthrow him.

The American rightwing media does this kind of thing fairly regularly in its coverage of the Middle East and Islam.

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Videogames for the rebellious masses

I was gratified to read that Libyan rebels in Misrata have been using the video game Call of Duty as a primary resource for tactical knowledge. Computer games are actually an extremely useful way for civilians with no military training (such as myself) to pick up a little bit of familiarity with military practices and problems that can be extremely useful in trying to function in a combat zone. 

Even the most serious of videogames is no substitute for actual military training, so one shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that you know too much -- ie, concluding that if the tank down the street can't see you in the game, it can't see you in real life. But like any theoretical model of a complex situation, they are invaluable in helping you place yourself in an unfamiliar analytical mode -- to be aware of variables, and consider problems, that you would not otherwise consider. Middle East-focused journalists like myself spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to get close to battlefields, so we ought to have as much of a theoretical framework as possible to try to understand them. Plus, some of these games are really, really cool.

That being said, I’d suggest that the Libyan rebels should delve beyond Call of Duty, if they get the chance (I am aware that those in Misrata might have more pressing concerns). It's a great series, but it's not intended to be as serious as a simulation as other games on the market. So, here's a quick set of recommendations for games which I think are useful for all of us civilians in trying to understand Libya and other conflicts. Warning: extreme geekiness follows.

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The Alex fallacy: blaming Islamists for demography

Foreign Policy runs a series of photos of Alexandrian beaches in 1959, "when Alexandria was once Club Med." But, "by the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam." Except in fact, Alexandria today is probably Club Meddier than it ever was. The only difference between then and now is that while in the 1950s, the party scene was east of the inner harbor (and was then mostly restricted to non-Muslim minority communities), the last time I went out carousing in Alex the party scene was west of the inner harbor, in Agami, and Muslims were fully represented among the scantily-clad, Heineken-drinking gilded shabab.
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In Libya, it was consensus vs clarity. I'm glad Obama went with consensus

US President Obama is coming under increasing pressure to explain exactly what it is that the United States is doing in Libya. If he's honest, he might say something like the following: "We are there in support of a document produced by a committee, under time constraints, which is consequently rather fuzzily worded, authorizing vaguely-described actions to achieve some very generally defined goals. We are there to prevent a tragedy, the scale of which will remain unknown unless we allow it to happen. We will probably remain committed to some degree until a wide range of Libyan actors, most of whose identities and agendas we do not know, can reach a stable ceasefire agreement, the terms of which we only guess at." I think that this is a good mission.

Americans prefer their wars to involve overwhelming force, applied on a strict timeline, accompanied by a plausible exit strategy, so as to achieve a satisfactory and stable end-state. Obama's Libya mission in contrast has been labelled "poorly conceived", "muddled", etc. But here's the problem: while in general, it's probably a good idea for a president to explain his or her war goals to the public, too rigid an adherance to the decisive force/clear mission/clear exit strategy set of parameters can be counterproductive in terms of actually accomplishing a stable status quo. It neglects what ought to be a rather key conceptual principle behind any intervention: it's not about us. ("Us", because I'm writing here as an American). Or rather, it might be our blood and our treasure, and hopefully our national interest, but it's some other country's factions, some other country's dynamics, some other country's agendas. Our main hope in intervention is to influence the actors to behave in a way that suits a larger goal, and in the mean time, provide as much disincentive as possible to slaughter civilians.

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Will the UN intervention in Libya stop Qaddafi?

Update: Obviously this would need to be significantly updated in light of today's assault on Benghazi. It sounds like Qaddafi's forces have simply swung around Ajdabiya -- the rebels' lack of mobility means that he can do that -- and thrown what he has against the east's capital. It seems a pretty desperate gamble, given that Benghazi should be extraordinarily hard to subdue, and may be intended to create a situation where intervening powers will be forced to strike before they are ready, which significantly raises the risk of major civilian casualties . He may even be hoping that they will be tempted to insert ground troops. Maybe like Saddam, he is already thinking ahead to a post-regime collapse scenario, and wants to make the situation as messy as possible before he goes.

I can only imagine the elation in Benghazi last night. Earlier this week I paid an extremely brief visit to eastern Libya, and watched morale see-saw back and forth according to the latest rumors from the battlefield. It looked like Qaddafi would just grind forward all the way to Benghazi, and almost everyone to whom I spoke was desperate for a no-fly zone (some also rejected "foreign intervention" at the same time, but appeared to associate the latter phrase with ground troops). As it seemed increasingly unlikely that anyone would intervene, there was a growing sense of abandonment. People would start to clutch at straws -- any rebel announcement of a miraculous turnabout success, however unlikely it sounded, was greeted by joyful cries of Allahu Akbar and the discharge of firearms into the air. But now we may have a genuine tide-turning event, real deliverance from on high. I could see the crowds cheering on al-Jazeera, but I'm sure that it conveyed only a small part of the ecstatic sense of relief which Benghazi residents are now experiencing.
So -- is their elation justified? Is this just going to be another one of those bitter early Bosnia or Iraq experiences, where international intervention is either ineffective or maybe even makes things worse? Did last night's UN Security Council resolution come too late?

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Only tragedies count

Ah, Niall Ferguson -- an article reminding us that some revolutions in history have turned out badly. Very good -- but the trend since the mid-1980s has arguably been the reverse. Why? The single anti-pluralist vanguard party has largely been discredited, and pluralism is in. I'm sure that the Philipines and Indonesia had lots of unemployed young men as well involved in their revolutions, but somehow avoided a reign of terror. The Weekly Standard of all places had a very eloquent description of why the 2011 revolutions will not necessarily take a tragic course, because it acknowledges one of the simplest history lessons of all: times change. Other than the obligatory call for American assertiveness and the pseudo-recommendation to airstrike Qaddafi's forces to show up Ahmadinejad, it's very much worth a read.

Libya faces some unique challenges,

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Libya: The Iron Fist that Failed

What does Libya's uprising mean, in terms of showing which regimes are vulnerable to revolution, and which are not?

It's been an article of faith in some circles (usually among "realists" of the right, but not always) that if a regime is ruthless enough, then it doesn't have to worry about being overthrown. It's all very well for us misty-eyed human rightsers to get euphoric about the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, but cold hard realists should realize that this "people power" thing is only good against genteel dictatorships. "Why are the more oppressive governments of Syria, Iran, and Libya not subject to the same degree of popular unrest that is said to be surely spreading to Jordan or the Gulf?" asked Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online. "Is it because for all the authoritarianism of a Mubarak or a Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there was never the threat of a genocidal Hama, or thousands perishing on the proscription lists under a Khomeini, or international assassinations of dissidents in the Libyan manner?" A week after the article was published, the rebel flag was flying over Benghazi.

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If the tide turns: some pros and cons of military intervention in Libya

In the last few days there have been a number of calls for international intervention to try to stem the atrocities that the Qaddafi regime is carrying out against Libyan civilians, including military measures such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. (Sanctions and other steps have also been proposed, but I doubt that they would have much impact on a regime fighting for its life).

We might be past the point where the declaration of a no-fly zone would make a major difference -- the Libyan air force (that part which has not defected) does not appear to be terribly effective and airlifted mercenary forces in the east seem to be contained. The city of Tripoli and several other towns on the west coast do appear to be at the mercy of loyalist mercenaries and militias, and are suffering terribly, but there is probably little that could be done militarily, short of a massive and prohibitively problematic amphibious invasion, to rescue them. Rebels in Benghazi are reportedly beginning to mobilize to move west, so it's quite likely that Libyans will be able to complete the overthrow of Qaddafi without outside help.

However, dictators have come back from the brink before: Saddam in 1991, for example, although his hold on the country was probably never as tenuous as Qaddafi's is right now. If there is any chance Qaddafi were to stage a major turnaround, and bring major rebel-held cities like Benghazi or Misrata under siege, then the United States and other powers capable of intervention in Libya should consider what might be done to prevent a terrible humanitarian disaster.

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Western Libyan towns fall to protesters

This is a rather simple map which tries to get a sense of the ebb and flow of uprisings and regime counterattacks. I will to add more and update regularly.

Most of the big developments in the last few hours have taken place in the west: in Sabratha, a fairly small town west of Tripoli, where the regime has reportedly brought up heavy armor to regain control, and in Misrata, to the east of Tripoli, which AP and others report has fallen completely to the protesters. Misrata is 185km from Tripoli, and is the third-largest city in the country. If it fell because local army units went over to the rebels, and thus it can defend itself, then this would be quite promising. However, if Qaddafi still has enough mobile loyalist forces to move to Misrata, and the Sabratha reports suggest that he might, then this could be a another humanitarian disaster along the lines of what now appears to be happening in Tripoli.