Who "owns" Libya?

A very interesting blog post on Libya by the Economist's Bagehot:

Speaking from outside Britain, a senior official told me that—after the fall of the Qaddafi regime—NATO air patrols and a no-fly zone would certainly have to remain in place as a deterrent to fighting between different factions or tribes, and to fulfil NATO's mandate from the United Nations to protect civilians. How long might that last? Well, he said, the current plan is for elections within 240 days, so perhaps until then at least: "We need an open-ended, low-intensity no-fly zone."

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Accountability in Libya

From the end of a WSJ piece on Turkish support for the TNC:

The defiant appearance of Seif el-Islam, who is wanted for crimes against humanity, in front of western video cameras in Tripoli has significantly undermined the credibility of Mr. Abdel-Jalil and has shocked rebel supporters in Benghazi. Some are already speaking about a conspiracy between the rebel leadership and Col. Gadhafi and his family to facilitate their escape from Tripoli. Many also see the rebel leadership as being out of touch for staying put within the relative safety of Benghazi while the decisive battle for Libya rages more than a 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the west.

As if offering a dose of belated consolation to his supporters, Mr. Abdel-Jalil said all those who collaborated with Col. Gadhafi would face trial, including himself for serving four years as justice minister before the start of the uprising in February.

"I will submit myself to trial for the four years I spent as a minister with Moammar Gadhafi," said Mr. Abdel-Jalil before pleading with the Libyan people to show mercy and forgiveness.

I wonder how that's going to work out.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Seif Qadhafi teaches us a lesson

The pic above (via FLC) must be the biggest double-take of recent times. After all, not only had the TNC and the (more unforgiveably) the ICC confirmed Seif's capture, but apparently he's free to roam Tripoli in his motorcade and drop by for a chat with journalists at the Rixos. Chapeau!

I suppose this shows (as does the continuing street warfare in Tripoli) that enthusiasm about the fall of Tripoi was premature. It also shows what anyone who has followed the Libyan civil war, no matter how supportive of the rebels, has known about them for a whiie: they are notoriously unreliable. It may be out of malice or simply because they seem so disorganized, but they hardly have a good track record. I hope the transitional government gets better about this.

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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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An anecdote about Khamis Qadhafi

Khamis Qadhafi

As I write these lines, Khamis al-Qadhafi, the most militarily-connected of Muammar al-Qadhafi's sons, is said to be leading his Khamis Brigade to the center of Tripoli in what may very well turn out to be his last stand. Khamis, the seventh and youngest son of the Brother Leader, operated discreetly at the repressive core of his father's regime for years, the military counterpart to his brother Seif's diplomatic role, tasked with protecting the family.

Several months ago, I heard a chilling story about Khamis. It came from an Egyptian acquaintance of mine who has done business in Libya for many years and was well-introduced with regime figures. The Egyptian's company, involved in construction and various state-financed projects, operated in Libya the way most foreigners did. They had regime-connected figures on the payroll, whose role was to smoooth out any problems with the government and make sure hurdles could be removed. It was just the cost of doing business in Libya, where the government could often prove unwilling to honor agreements and everyone needed a little help from a part of the mafia state the Qadhafis ran. 

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What passes as sage advice in Washington

The mind-boggling stupidity of neo-cons is on display again in this recent piece by Michael Rubin, arguing that the US should impose the kind of electoral system Egypt should use. After warning of the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and what happened after the Iranian revolution, Rubin writes:

It's against this backdrop that the White House should use its leverage to ensure not only free elections, but also those which ensure the checks and balances necessary for democracy. 

Egypt experts agree the Brotherhood has a natural constituency of only 25 percent of the population but, at the same time, acknowledge it is the best organized party in the new Egypt. 

If Egypt holds elections according to a winner-takes-all system (as in the United States), the Brotherhood might leverage its minority support to achieve a dominating grip on government. 

However, if Egypt adopts proportional representation, then even the most fractious and disorganized secular leaders can form a coalition after elections to quarantine or balance populists whose commitment to democracy is tactical and fleeting.

Likewise, the White House should demand that Egypt embrace open lists. Corrupt politicians should not hide behind unconditional American aid. Nor should American tax payers help fund any country afraid to allow international dignitaries to observe elections.

The problems with this:

  • Rubin is apparently unaware that the electoral system has already been decided.
  • He is also unaware that the electoral system will be partly proportional.
  • He obviously has no knowledge of Egyptian electoral politics, or the problems with PR systems more generally, if he thinks that they would necessarily encourage more liberal governments. Firstly, a lot of Egypt's electoral districts will be dominated by patrician rather than ideological forces. This type of local politics would be diluted by a PR system. Secondly, a glance at Israeli politics will tell you that PR systems can empower radicals: just look at the stranglehold that Shas and pro-settler parties have had on successive coalition governments there.
  • If a PR system was chosen, there is no guarantee that secularists would be able to form a governing coalition.
  • Rubin also has apparently no idea that the US telling Egyptians what electoral system they should use would neither be very effective nor really help liberals if done in their name. In fact, I'm pretty sure they would be aghast.

As you see in a lot of analysis from the neo-conservative side of the spectrum, this argument is really not about Egypt. It's about finding a new angle from which to bash the Obama administration. If this is all that interests the American Enterprise Institute, where Rubin has a perch, fine. But we should not ever take it seriously as a think tank.

Libya after Qadhafi

Following the entry of Libya’s rebels1 into Tripoli last night was exhilarating. A civil war2 that had lasted much longer than initially expected seems to be finally nearing an end, even if Tripoli is still not fully controlled and other parts of the country remain in the hands of Qadhafi loyalists. Whether or not you supported NATO intervention in Libya, it’s a magnificent moment to see another dictator fall, especially one like Qadhafi who for 42 years ran one of the most brutal regimes in the region. Libyans have never really had a chance at defining their own identity and forging their own future — not under the monarchy, and certainly not under Qadhafi — and like in Tunisia or Egypt, the most amazing thing is that this is now more possible than it ever was.

Taking early stock of the Libyan civil war of 2011 (hoping it will soon be over), the first priority is how to carry out this transition. The TNC has the advantage of having been formed over six months ago, incorporating former members of the regime and figures from across the country, and having planned for this moment for some extent. It has diplomatic recognition, and enough credibility to secure aid, cash, weapons and other help foreign partners. In the eyes of the oil companies that are likely to be key in financing Libya’s post-war reconstruction, it also has enough credibility to be seen as an entity one can do business with.

There is already much hand-wringing about how this transition might take place. The truth is the rebels, once they had secured Western backing, never had any incentive to negotiate with the Qadhafi regime. There were multiple diplomatic attempts at doing so, but they were scuttled by the rebels and key Western powers much more than by Qadhafi. We can leave it to historians to argue whether this might have saved lives or provided a better blueprint for a Libyan transition to a post-Qadhafi regime. But the question of negotiating with the regime’s remnants now becomes more crucial. TNC officials have given some signs that they were not interested in revanchisme, although it’s hard to know how much control they can really exert over what amounts to a large, diffuse coalition of anti-Qadhafi forces that — once the Brother Leader is killed, exiled or arrested — may have less common cause. There are a lot of light weapons in the hands of volunteer fighters in Libya, and like in any conflict, it’s hard to predict what they might end up doing with them in the coming transition.3

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Elections in the UAE: the lucky 129,274

This guest post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

Some 469 people, including 85 women, will run for a seat on the United Arab Emirates’s Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body, scheduled on September 24. Any Emirati national selected by the rulers of the Emirates to be part of the electoral college was eligible to register as a FNC candidate provided they are at least 25, in good standing with the law, and literate. Half the seats are up for election, the other half are appointed by the leadership of the UAE.  

In short, “chosen” Emiratis will soon be voting for half the members of a government body that has no legislative power.  What do you call that — cosmetic democracy or progressive empowerment?  

“This is a very sorry situation because on the one hand we want people to be encouraged to run for the FNC elections so they can have an opinion and share in the building of the nation,” Abdul Hamid Ahmad, the editor-in-chief of Gulf News, wrote recently in an editorial for the paper.  “While on the other hand, because of the limited role of the FNC, we take away from them one of the main tools for candidacy. The manifesto has no meaning.”   

In late September, 129,274 people — a number that falls far short of universal suffrage — will be allowed to vote in the FNC elections. The number is a significant increase from the last and only other elections of 2006, when 6,600 or so Emiratis were eligible.   The increase in the number of members shows the UAE is “committed to strengthening political participation and developing it in tune with the local culture”,  Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said.   

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Podcast #9: Revolution jetlag

We're back from our break and talk sbout Tea Party politics, how the Mubarak trial is going so far and whether it should have taken place in the way it did, and how the situation in Sinai has created an Egyptian-Israeli crisis. And we touch upon what may be the beginning of the end for Syria and Libya.

The Arabist Podcast #9

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Links 5-16 August 2011

Our long break is almost over — back to normal activity, and the podcast, this weekend!

In the meantime, here is my latest colum for the National, written in the US on Tea Party politics and what they might mean for US policy in the Middle East, and some recent links.

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The United (but not Equal) Arab Emirates

The following post — a backgrounder on the economic structure and inequalities of the UAE — was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

When six emirates proclaimed themselves a unified country in 1971, Ras Al Khaimah was not among them.  For Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the ruler of the emirate at the time, there was one remaining stumbling block: an imbalance of power that tilted strongly toward the economically dominant emirates. Today, that imbalance remains.

While Abu Dhabi is awash with cranes working around the clock to raise a post modern city from the sand, and the skyline of Dubai is exploding with glass towers, in the northern emirates what one sees is a  developing-world landscape.  In Ras Al Khaimah, many of the residential streets are lined with single-story homes with unsightly exterior air conditioning units, peeling paint and tin-roofed garages.  From the highways of Sharjah, drab concrete apartment blocks appear the norm rather than the exception.

Here “there is no oil,” Yousef Al Antali, a resident of Fujairah said.  “We live a simple life.” But growing slower is better, his friend Abdullah Al Khadddeim said. Maybe in “two to three years we will be the same as Abu Dhabi.”

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Cultural revolution

Since Mubarak's ouster, I've been trying to follow some small portion of the many creative reactions to this time in Egypt's history. Many of the artists and writers I know personally were in Tahrir Square, and have since been struggling to make sense of their experience; to balance their work and their political commitments; and to take advantage of new opportunities for collective action, free speech, and making use of public space. 

A mural in Downtown Cairo (since painted over) created as part of an art awareness campaign

For the design magazine Print, I put together a selection of images that speak (or spoke, a few months back -- these things change quickly) to the visual legacy of the revolution.

And I just wrote a piece on "cultural revolution" for Foreign Policy looking at some of the many grassroots cultural initiatives taking place now; at artists' efforts to contribute creatively to the revolution (and their many acts of opposition, well before it, to the Mubarak regime); and at how the cultural landscape might be changing. There is also an accompanying slide show

Links 27 July - August 4 2011

I was profiled a few days ago in Le Monde. Note that the story has an error: I was a co-founder of Cairo magazine, not of the Cairo Times (where I worked for several years after it was founded in 1997.)

A few links —  but neither the blog posting nor the links will go back to their regular schedule until late August, as I am on holiday and frequently traveling.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Photo of the day

I have to admit I was skeptical we'd see these images of Mubarak in court.

I agree with this take:

The moment Mubarak received his legal summons yesterday, officially accusing him of said crimes, the most important nail in the coffin of Middle-Eastern cult-of-personality and leader-worship was finally hammered, and would only be hammered further by the live telecast of the trial. Leaders are human beings, just like the rest of us, and the same laws that apply to us apply to them as well. If they do break them, they will suffer like any of us would. And just because of that, almost regardless of how the trials proceed, many of us here feel more even empowered and more dignified as citizens than as we did even on February 11th as well. And it's a watershed moment for an entire region struggling with corrupt, bloodthirsty and oppressive regimes, many of which are starting to believe they managed their way out of the Arab Spring. As the leading figures of those regimes received the news that Mubarak, one of the most powerful, oldest reigning, and once untouchable among them, was officially served his legal summons, all those men knew that the end of life as they were used to it has finally come, forever. Governments are for the people, not the other way around; and the people owntheir countries, not the regimes.

A great day.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The state of Bahrain's national dialogue: all talk?

The following is a guest post by Jenifer Fenton.

Bahrain’s main opposition group took to the streets on Friday demanding a credible dialogue with the King.  

“We will continue to rally,” said Khalil Al Marzooq, a senior member of  Al Wefaq.  It was their seventh - and likely not their last - Friday gathering.  The group walked out of the Kingdom’s National Dialogue on July 19.  “General efforts to make it credible were rejected and ignored,” Al Marzooq said. 

More than 300 people in Bahrain began “talking” in July in line with a directive from the king following widespread unrest that shook the island nation earlier this year. Five people from each political society were invited, as were select NGOs, members of the business community, some unionists and 70 or so public figures. 

The talks were biased from the onset, Marzooq said. Opposition and those critical of the government only made up between 10 and 15 percent of those participating in the talks.  In Bahrain, a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, who feel disenfranchised. 

The country remains in a tenuous status quo.  

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