Libya Dispatch: Rebel Twinkies fuel the struggle

An alternative use for ammo

Napoleon famously said an army marches on its stomach, and in the case of Libya's rebel forces, that would be tuna sandwiches, fava beans and a lot of junk food.

As Western air strikes are restarting once thoroughly defeated rebel advance, the once weirdly successful aspect of their rag tag forces should be gearing up again -- their food supply lines.

Like everything else about the uprising in eastern Libya seeking to challenge Moammar Gadhafi's four decade hammerlock on power, the fighters' food supply was an ad hoc affair of entreprising individuals and local charities with official sanction that somehow seemed to work -- even when nothing else really did.

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A dispatch from SXSW

I spent most of this week in Austin, Texas, where I was invited to participate in a panel on Wikileaks organized by The Guardian at the South By SouthWest Interactive festival. I had  a great time there — it's a geeky festival I had long wanted to go to, with also great film and music festivals — although I'm still suffering from the brutal 20-hour trip. 
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Libya dispatch: Momentum

Life on the road

A second dispatch from Libya from Abu Ray, who's been very, very close to the action.

"I came here to cover a revolution, not a war," said one photographer in disgust after a particularly bad day on the front. Many of those covering this conflict have been surfing from one Middle East uprising to the last and as exhausting as it’s been, it’s also been an uplifting story of peoples peacefully overcoming nasty repressive governments. Until now.

In Egypt and Tunisia the militaries balked from shooting their own people and in the end presidents had to go. In Bahrain, a mercenary military and police were finally restrained by a country that needs world opinion on its side.

None of those strictures existed in Libya where the army was weak and did divide over killing civilians, but was offset by brigades of shady security forces and mercenaries that stayed loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and were ok with shooting people in the streets..

We arrived in Tobruk and Benghazi into a barely restrained carnival of euphoria and over the next three weeks watched the fits and starts of a fledgling state. Eastern Libya and its string of “liberated” cities did not dissolve into chaos or tribalism as some had predicted, calling Libya with its complex web of clan ties as “North Africa’s Somalia.”

Instead it remained peaceful, generous to outsiders and incredibly earnest about building something new in land ruled for four decades by a destructive whim suspicious of any normal social or civic institutions.

Perhaps some sort of shaky future lay ahead for this nascent Free Libya, but we’ll never know because the empire struck back and today it all seems in peril. I leave now with the feeling of a retreat. Qadhafi’s forces, backed by the overwhelming force of tanks and rockets, are rolling back rebel gains and making their way east.

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Facing death in Libya

Our sometime correspondent Abu Ray just got back from Libya. Here's what he wrote.

Death has been a lot on my mind since coming to Libya. It's not that I've been in any real danger, it's just it's sort of out there, all around me and hard to ignore. The other day, we were driving back from Bayda, a medium size town nestled in a stunningly beautiful Green Mountain area of Libya. A high mass of wildflower studded fields set in the middle of an otherwise arid coast.

It had been a long day of chasing an elusive politicians and visiting decrepit military bases trying to find out if the rebel east really had a shot of marching on Tripoli. There was some success, but mostly we were exhausted after a long day, like so many other long days since we came roaring across the Egyptian border into Libya a week before.

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Dispatch from Tahrir

I spent most of the day today walking around Downtown Cairo and Midan Tahrir. There are still tens of thousands of people in the square. A definite rhythm has established itself, with Tuesday and Fridays the serious turn-out days; the rest of the week a moulid-like atmosphere pervades the area, with families visiting it, taking pictures next to tanks and the various memorials and displays set up in the square--out on the fun excursion. Some genius has started making hundreds of laminated مصر فوق الجميع ("Egypt Above Us All") tags that you can wear around your neck (they sell for 2 pounds, about 30 cents). Sellers are also doing a brisk business in Egyptian flags, snacks and drinks. Opposition newspapers are taped to walls so everyone can read them; and some enterprising local restaurateur has set up shop in the demolished Hardee's. 
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Abu Ray comes home

Abu Ray is a contributor to the blog who brought us this great series on his trips to Iraq in the last several years. He just came home to Cairo from a trip to Indonesia.


It is one of the miracles of modern travel that less than 20 hours after I was playing in the surf on Bali’s Legian Beach with my son, I was back in Cairo. And it is also one of the miracles of modern social movements that in the 10 days I’d been gone the city had changed irrevocably.


I had left Cairo and come home to Baghdad.

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Tunisia diary: Ammar's move? (2)

Things are still very much up in the air at the moment for the transitional government, especially if two Reuters reports from earlier today are to believed. It's pretty evident public opinion is split between those who want a smooth transition and restoration of order and those who want a clean break with the former regime, most notably the six ministers from the RCD, some of whom were in positions to be either in the loop or directly involved in the corruption the Ben Alis and Trabelsis (and others), such as the minister of finance. But even with those who prioritize a smooth transition and return to normalcy (and I would say, judging from the sheer number of people back on the streets doing their work today — remember a lot of people have been unable to earn for the last two weeks — that is the majority) are not happy with the RCD still not being disbanded. What seems to be happening now is some sort of compromise / negotiation.

Two developments today sent the signal that things may be fast moving. 

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Tunisia diary: Arrival (1)

Where to start? I haven't had time to post much in the last few days — I was transiting through Rome where I had to present a paper on Egypt's NDP and regime fragmentation at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (there were also great papers on the socio-economic situation by Maria-Cristina Pacielo, on the Muslim Brothers by Daniela Pioppi and on Egypt's foreign policy by Philippe Droz-Vincent, all to be published soon) — and then made the enormous sacrifice of not spending a weekend in one of my favorite cities stuffing myself and headed straight to Tunis.

I'll be reporting from here for various publications, but most of it won't be news — it will be long pieces to try and dig deeper into the Tunisian revolution and where it's headed, also providing some historical perspective. I hope to have the time to discuss some of the day to day developments and snapshots of life here. I am self-financing this trip, so if you can help me handle the expenses of operating here, please donate what you can. This blog has run for seven years and barely makes enough money from advertising to pay for hosting expenses, I am self-employed and do not have any institution backing me and picking up the tab for flights, hotels, cars, food, and all the other costs of a reporting trip such as this one. If you've enjoyed The Arabist, it it's proved useful for your research or work, if you like the daily links, and if you want insights from Tunisia that are a little different from the standard journalistic work we've seen so far (much of which is excellent, by the way, but this will be a more personal account), then please consider sending us some baksheesh.

I've only spent two days or so here so far, so obviously the range of people I've met has been limited. What I can say with certainty is the following: Tunisians are incredibly proud of their revolution, as they should be, and that pride is infectious. In conversations one of the themes that comes up again and again is that people feel they can stand tall again after years of submission, their fear has evaporated. Well, perhaps not entirely: they have new concerns now, but these are fears they intend to confront straight on: the country's economic situation, the risk that elements of the former regime will make a return (whether at the level of the cabinet with the RCD ministers, or more problematically, with the party structure across the country), the risk that what so far has been a revolution remarkable for its orderliness may become more chaotic, and the risk of foreign interference (whether Arab or Western).

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Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by

One of my first days back in Baghdad, I tagged along with a 
photographer to go cover the handover of a small base from the 
Americans to the Iraqis up in northeast Baghdad.

I’d been in the neighborhood years ago on an embed and I was curious 
how it might have changed, and of course it was a chance to get out of 
the bureau and cruise a bit more around Baghdad.

We never made it.

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A new dispatch from Iraq by our correspondent Abu Ray.
According to the ancient texts, the Tower of Babel was a seven level step pyramid 91.5 meters high with a temple to the god Marduk on the top. Now it is a square shaped grassy knoll bordered by a water-filled trench.
The mound is surrounded by lumpy, overgrown hills, date palm trees and some distant cows grazing in the fields hosting the ruins of Babylon, a city founded 4,000 years ago. We were cautioned against walking too far away from the site as there are still some trip flares planted in the undergrowth left over from the old military base.
It is hard to say which was more exciting, visiting the ruins of Babylon, something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid… or just driving there.
A friend of mine has been working down in Babylon as part of an effort to assess some of the problems at the site and come up with a plan to save the ruins, which are threatened by, well, all the usual things that are threatening in Iraq, as well as a rising water table.
It was a measure of just how much Iraq had changed when the bureau chief barely batted an eye when I asked if I could make the hour and a half drive south.
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Dispatch from Iraq: Do It Again

In 2005 and 2006, we ran a series of dispatches from our friend Abu Ray, who was reporting from Iraq. Abu Ray is now back in Iraq and has sent a new dispatch:

The day after I arrived, I found myself heading back to the airport, that familiar ride through west Baghdad, past the checkpoints, with the bubbles in the stomach wondering whether the flight would be canceled or some other unforeseen disaster would prevent escape.
This time was for work though, and I wouldn’t be flying anywhere, just on hand to watch a young Iraqi boy return home after a year in the U.S. It was a good thing I’d just arrived and didn’t yet have that trapped, desperate sensation I always remembered after leaving here for six weeks at a time.
It would have been a too much of a tease to come all the way to the airport, with all its accompanying emotions, and then not leave. This time around, though, I was okay with it – freshly arrive and still trying to figure out how much the place has changed.
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That's it for now (23)

December 19, 2006

So that was it. The plane took off, we did the familiar stomach churning spin and I looked out and watched the airport dip in and out of view, watched Camp Victory go by, idly pointed out too myself the various Saddam palaces that have become military headquarters and tried to remember which ones I'd been in.

It was a sick and tawdry story and I didn't want to tell it anymore. I walked into a bad situation one year ago and actually watched it get worse, with the fairly certain belief that it will continue to do so.
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Bad cops, good cops (22)

December 11, 2006

The word of the air strike came around mid-morning. I was actually the one to take the call from our stringer in Samarra. He said 32 people had been killed in an American air strike somewhere to the south according to local government official Amr something-or-other and he was heading towards the site, then the line went dead.

We tried to call him back later, because you can’t give a story based on the word of Amr something-or-other, certainly not an Americans-killed-dozens-of-people kind of story, but he’d either moved out of coverage area or the appalling Iraqi mobile networks were having another miserable day.
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Mountains and plains (21)

November 24, 2006

It was just such a classic Baghdad return. The sky was hazy and overcast as we drove back from the airport. The traffic was bad, a convoy of SUVs featuring guys with assault rifles hanging out of the window came blaring past. And then back at the office a bombing that killed 25 people in a Shiite neighborhood soon mushroomed into stunning death toll of over 200.

Soon I was scribbling away, updating stories, answering calls from radio stations describing the latest "brutal" attack in Baghdad and the ongoing "civil war" or was it just a "sectarian conflict" as bombs "rip apart" the neighborhood in a city "convulsed" by violence as the "fabric of society frays" or whatever other cliché I've gotten so used to using to describe the nasty situation here.
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Too much TV (20)

My friend Abu Ray, a journalist in Baghdad, sends regular personal dispatches from there. His latest is about something we both like a lot -- Battlestar Galactica. This season (the third) is replete with references to tawhid, the Islamic concept of monotheism or "oneness of God" that is unfortunately more famous as a jihadi terms. Not only that, but the humans engage in suicide bombing operations against the Cylon occupier and then debate the morality of it. All in all, a lot of the stuff in this season hits close to home if you're living in the Middle East. Here's Paul's take on the unsettling parallels between his job as a journalist and what he watches on his downtime.

Today two suicide bombers walked into a police commando recruitment center and blew themselves up, killing 35 recruiting hopefuls. The night before I watched a TV show where a young cadet blew himself up at the police graduation ceremony - killing, as I recall, 35 people.

That was a bit of a shock.

The moments after I leave the desk at night, after a long shift, are very special to me. I read, listen to music, decompress and drink my whiskey. Most importantly I watch the movies that I've been patiently downloading while in Egypt, or copying off friends.

The best things are television series, discrete one hour shows - they aren't too long and don't require too much brain power. Frankly after a day on the desk my attention span is pretty shot.
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Just a passing phase (19)

October 22, 2006

They beat up one of our photographers today.

And smashed his cameras. Now that's pretty tough – not so much slapping around our photographer and threatening to drag him into a car so that he could join the ranks of nameless corpses, that's common. But destroying these big clunky professional Canons, with metal frames takes a lot of effort.

Apparently, though, grabbing a camera by its lens and hurling it with all force onto a stone floor, will do the trick.
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Media Culpa (18)

October 3, 2006

It was our fault. We brought him down. He seemed to be a perfectly good judge and by all counts was doing a better job than some of his predecessors.

He just made a little slip and we pounced on him.

This trial was supposed to be different. The first trial of Saddam Hussein was a circus. Saddam Hussein and three cronies and four total unknown minor officials were on trial for the brutal crackdown on the Shiite village of Dujail following an assassination attempt on Saddam in 1982.

It was an odd choice to start with, of all of Saddam's crimes, this was the one to kick off with? Who's ever heard of Dujail? Only 148 people died in this one, compared to hundreds of thousands in the other cases.

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Rust and paint (17)

September 11, 2006

It was a graveyard. That was the only way to describe it. The place where old war machines came to die. Row upon row of massive sand-colored metal tanks, their huge guns each raised to a different height, sat there like a frozen image of a clumsy chorus line.

There weren't just tanks either, massive artillery pieces, trucks, strange amphibious vehicles that looked half boat – an automotive mating ritual gone horribly wrong, and all covered in the graffiti of their conquerors.

Beneath the layers of black spray paint could be seen the original unit designations of these shattered old Iraqi tanks left to rust in a field at the edge of Taji base, somewhere north of Baghdad.
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Shit's Creek (16)

August 6, 2006

We were nearing the end of our patrol when we got a call about a UXO incident – unexploded ordnance. Someone, somewhere had found some kind of exploded bomb and we were sent to deal with it.

Actually, our patrol was just there to secure the area and provide security while the EOD (explosives ordnance disposal or something, I swear, it's a new acronym every day) was called in to clean up the mess of the war.

It turned out to be an unexploded mortar shell in a particular poor area somewhere in southwest Baghdad, a Shiite neighborhood not far from a Sunni neighborhood, another one of these fault lines in the city.
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Unexpected support (15)

August 2, 2006

In the midst of this whole mess, the last place I expected to find people who liked America was west Baghdad.

West Baghdad, roughly speaking, is the Sunni part of a very mixed city, and has the distinction of being the home to a pretty nasty insurgency for the last few years – you wanna get kidnapped, go to west Baghdad, where they also shoot men for wearing shorts and women for not wearing veils.

US troops turned the place over to the Iraqi army back in December, all part of that process of Bush calls our stepping down as the Iraqis step up... Except it all went to hell so badly that in April the US army had to move back in – I don't think that was mentioned in the state of the union address.

Now, the whole capital's going to hell in a handbasket and the same process is being repeated across the city as more US troops are being rushed in. Six weeks into the new prime minister's security plan, it's worse than ever here and the Iraqi forces have shown themselves unable to control their own capital.

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