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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Is this where the Egyptian center is at?

In the media, Egypt's die-hard (mostly leftist) revolutionaries, the Muslim Brothers and their vision of a "renaissance" for Egypt, and the Salafists and their "back-to-8th-century-basics" approach get the most coverage. But there is also a wide part of Egyptian society that wants credible action, social peace, and economic improvement — and the presidential candidate that can appeal to these people probably has the best chance.

That appears to be what Amr Moussa is doing — as reported by Heba Afify in this excellent Egypt Independent piece from the campaign trail in Gharbeia:

Moussa’s practical speeches appealed to the audience who came to the rallies hoping to hear exactly that. As supportive as they say they are of the revolution, they seemed hungry for stability.

“We want the old regime but without the corruption, with a fresh outlook,” said Abel Alim Bedeir, a veterinarian from Gabereya. “We don’t want someone new who would shake the whole being of the state and start from scratch.”

Having served under Mubarak for 10 years as foreign minister, but one who has distanced himself from the taint of corruption, Moussa is a perfect choice for Bedeir and many others who want change — but not too much.

Realizing that the people are out of patience after over a year of economic hardship and disappointment, Moussa offers a plan promising immediate results in addition to long-term goals.

Less realistic are some of his promises:

Moussa says that during the first 100 days of his term, he will take action regarding corruption, unemployment and the economy that will result in significant improvement of Egyptians’ situation. Moussa says that by the end of his four-year term, the national income will be doubled and Egypt will achieve a 100 percent literacy rate, up from the current level, which is around 60 percent.

I doubt the country is going to get much better until you start having politicians who dare tell the truth to average Egyptians — that they now have to deal with 60 years of accumulated misrule — and a public that is open to hearing that.

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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.

Daniel Levy vs. Benny Morris, part 2

The other day I linked to Daniel Levy taking Benny Morris to task for "attempting to give a veneer of intellectual respectability to the well-rehearsed propagandist whining of apologists for Israeli policies and Israeli settlements." It was a great piece that you should read.

Since then Morris wrote a lengthy rebuttal which ends in this way:

Lastly, Levy objects to my occasional use, in the past, of the word "barbarian". Well, how would he define societies that carry out or condone the murder of thousands of women each year simply because they look the wrong way at a man or glance at the wrong man or dress the wrong way (the Arab world); or who practice mass coerced female genital mutilation (Egypt); or which put men on trial for homosexuality (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.); or cut off the arms of thieves (Saudi Arabia) or stone women who are charged with adultery (Iran); or kill masses of fellow Arabs or Muslims, often in funeral processions, in suicide bombings (Iraq); or which dance on rooftops or hand out sweets to children to celebrate the blowing up of a bus crammed with civilians (Palestine); or who shoot down and torture many thousands of civilians who say they merely seek freedom (Syria)? If Levy has a better word, let him offer it.

So as long as you're not generalizing, then, Dr Morris.

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 Mufti and Jerusalem

Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, visited Jerusalem yesterday — sparking a huge controversy and earning the condemnations of the Muslim Brotherhood and countless others for the visit.

Mufti Ali Gomaa said on his Twitter account that he had visited Jerusalem, entering from the West Bank via Jordan and not from the Israeli side. He said he prayed in the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, in the walled old city.

East Jerusalem was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as a future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel describes Jerusalem as its eternal undivided capital.

Egyptian religious officials, including members of Egypt's Coptic Christian church, have for decades refused to travel to Jerusalem in protest at the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the Palestinian areas.

On Twitter, Gomaa said it was an "unofficial visit" to the mosque. The mufti's spokesman told the state-owned Al-Ahram's website that the trip which was his first did not indicate "any recognition of the Zionist entity" - a reference to Israel.

I'm not sure what Gomaa was thinking, as this visit is an unprecedented step with far-reaching consequences. The Mufti is, in a sense, the state-apppointed religious arbiter in Egypt, which is why any engagement with Israel is going to be seen as ill-advised by (but not only Islamists). It also puts the Coptic Orthodox Church, which under the late Pope Shenouda III refused to visit Jerusalem (surely an even more important place to Christians) in solidarity with the country's Muslims and the Palestinian cause.

He might also have known that the Islamist-dominated parliament would not be happy with this, and indeed there is now a move by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood MPs to question him and possibly sack him (something that in theory is the prerogative of the president, or for now SCAF). What we have, then, is a preview of the convergence of religious issues and the Israel issue in Egypt's new politics.

(For the record, I have long thought that Egypt's dominant anti-normalization stance is, well, pretty stupid and narrow-minded. Gomaa was right to go there and engage with Palestinians and break their isolation — they need all the support they can get. It is neither a recognition nor endorsement of Israel, and indeed while there he could have denounced the occupation. )

Why I won't bother reading Peter Beinart

For several months now there's been a huge hullabaloo about Peter Beinart, who has gone from establishment Jewish-American golden boy to near-pariah figure for his book, The Crisis of Zionism, which essentially appears to be of the anguished "Israel-is-losing-its-soul" variety but is nonetheless important because it's an insider's rebellion and has ruffled feathers. I think I'll pass reading it, however, not just because much this Jewish-American intramural debate is old news and not particularly interesting anymore (Israelis themselves have had a much more vigorous debate for years, after all.)

It's that the book appears to carry some bizarre arguments. From historian Shaul Magid's review in Religion Dispatches:

While Beinart gestures to his leftist critics that he is aware of the argument that one cannot separate the settlements from the state, he never responds to them. Probably because he can’t. His suggestion that we should boycott the settlements and give that money (and more!) to the state belies the reality that the state funds the settlements, which is why no one I am familiar with ever suggested boycotting the Afrikaner farmers while giving more aid to the South African government.

If Beinart tries to establish some kind of separation between the settlements and the state of Israel, which finances them, provides infrastructure, guards them, builds roads to them, etc. — how is anyone supposed to take him seriously?

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 Sudans on the brink of war and state collapse

While we've been fascinated with Egypt's bizarre presidential elections drama and other stories, I and many others have been oblivious to the serious worsening of the situation between the two Sudans. There are very few foreign reporters there — basically only the news agencies at most times — but considering the seriousness of the situation, the potential for many deaths, and the potential impact in East Africa and the Sahel this is worthy of attention. It's also surprising the issue is not getting more scrutiny at the UN.

Here's a quick rundown from published sources.

Omar al-Bashir is threatening to escale recent skirmishes with South Sudan into a full-scale war:

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has said his main goal is now to "liberate" the people of South Sudan from its rulers following recent border clashes.

The former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement has ruled South Sudan since it seceded from Sudan in July 2011.

President Bashir was addressing a rally at his party's headquarters.
Fighting between the two countries has now spread to another area, further adding to fears of all-out war.

This follows an earlier statement by the North's parliament calling the south an "enemy":

(Reuters) - Sudan's parliament branded South Sudan an "enemy" on Monday and called for a swift recapture of a disputed oil-producing region, as rising border tensions pushed the old civil war foes closer to another full-blown conflict.

South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan last July, seized the contested Heglig oilfield last Tuesday, prompting its northern neighbor to vow to recapture the area by "all means".

The oilfield is vital to Sudan's economy, producing about half of the 115,000 barrel-per-day output that remained in its control after South Sudan's secession.

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How the north-south relationship in Yemen is changing

This piece was contributed by Bilal Ahmed, a student and activist completing his senior year at Rutgers University who has spent time in Yemen. This piece was primarily written during his stay in Tahrir Square, Egypt. As always with guest contributors, their opinions are their own.

There are flags hanging in many buildings in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. These flags, in addition to the standard Yemeni red, white, and black, contain a light blue triangle with a red star within it. They are seen everywhere, from tea shops, to private homes, to the crowds of protestors that have been marching on Aden’s streets for the past year.

These are the flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, colloquially known as “South Yemen.” The PDRY was an avowedly Stalinist-Marxist single-party state, though its classification as such is a matter of debate. More significant than Marxism in the history of South Yemen was the state’s mobilization of dormant nationalism among South Yemenis.

“North Yemen” extends from the Saudi Arabian border to the de facto border between North and South signed by the Ottoman and British Empires in 1905. South Yemeni nationalism is rooted in the different histories that birthed the two former states, with North Yemen initially ruled by Imamates and finally an autocratic Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) “President” in Ali Abdullah Saleh.

South Yemen has an entirely different past that must be understood in the wake of its growing geopolitical focus.

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Gresh on the key aspects of the Arab uprisings

Alain Gresh:

Même s’il y a des différences d’un pays à l’autre, une même volonté anime ces révoltes qui ont en commun trois caractéristiques :

1. La volonté d’en finir avec l’autoritarisme et la dictature, mais pas seulement au sens politique. Avant tout au sens d’arbitraire. C’est ce que disent les gens quand ils parlent de karama – de dignité. Ils veulent vivre dans une société où ils ne sont pas soumis à l’arbitraire du fonctionnaire qui les envoie «promener», du policier qui les maltraite ou les frappe, une société où tous les agents de l’Etat respectent les citoyens. Cela va bien au-delà d’une demande de démocratie.

2. La volonté d’en finir avec l’accaparement des richesses par une minorité, avec une libéralisation économique imposée par l’Union européenne, qui ne profite qu’à la clique au pouvoir et accroît la paupérisation de la population.

3. La volonté d’en finir avec un patriarcat oppressant qui marginalise une jeunesse instruite, mieux formée que ses parents et qui ne trouve pas de travail.

Révolte contre l’arbitraire, contre l’injustice sociale, contre la marginalisation de la jeunesse : ces trois facteurs sont communs à tous les soulèvements qui secouent le Monde arabe.

Three key aspects of the Arab uprisings: anti-authoritarianism with a libertarian streak and a focus on rule of law, a demand for socio-economic justice, and against what might be termed the geronto-patriarchy (i.e. the rule of old men). Seems about right, and if so it should bring major social transformations in the next decade.

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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.

Revisiting the Moroccan exception

I have a new op-ed in today's Guardian (p. 28 for dead-tree readers) about Morocco — specifically looking at the idea of Morocco as a model of how to handle the political demands unleashed by the Arab Spring. Here's how it starts:

There are cautionary tales in the Arab uprisings, as Syria has shown: not every revolution can be as successful as Tunisia's, not every aftermath is rosy. And then there are also questions raised about those places where revolution did not take place. Was it averted because there is wise and popular government, or has some kind of social shock merely been postponed?

Last year Morocco seemed for a while to be following the path of its eastern neighbours. Protests were proliferating, with public participation unseen since the 1970s. King Mohammed VI, whose legitimacy was never targeted by the protests – even if that of his regime was – deftly retook the initiative by proposing, and hurriedly passing, a new constitution. Elections that followed led, for the first time, to victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), which is now in office. Surely, some observers marvelled, here was a model to follow for countries faced with demands for change, one that offered fewer dangers than revolution?

Many Moroccans were divided on this issue. Libya's civil war and, later, Syria's, frightened many into believing that escalation would be too costly for a country that has neither petroleum riches nor great strategic assets. They knew from experience that the makhzen – the political-economic-security nexus that rules the country behind the scenes – would not yield power easily, and is capable of great repression. It was probably why many hoped that promises of reform were genuine, and were willing to give a new government and chastened makhzen the benefit of the doubt. Such a debate on whether such gradualism is preferable to more risky radical rupture is at the heart of the Arab uprisings, which were an indictment of reform initiatives that never went anywhere.

Read the rest here, which talks about rising socio-economic discontent as illustrated by the Taza protests, the threat of more economic pain from a coming drought, and the slow pace of political change under the new PJD government. And the king's megabucks, of course.

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.

Shater, Abu Ismail, Suleiman out? Thank God.

It looks like the political drama will soon end, according to this Reuters scoop:

(Reuters) - Ten candidates for the Egyptian presidency including Hosni Mubarak's spy chief, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a Salafi preacher lost appeals against disqualification from the race, two sources on the committee overseeing the vote told Reuters.
"All appeals have been rejected because nothing new was offered in the appeal requests," a member of the judicial committee told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Another source confirmed that all the appeals had been rejected.
I'll wait for the official confirmation, because in this insane political environment you never know, but I am very reassurred that this is the outcome. (I'll leave the wondering about whether the commission came to this conclusion by itself, through SCAF pressure, or as part of an elaborate multi-party deal to others). As I wrote in the National a few days ago:
The destabilising prospect of these three candidates, who are thought by many to have the best chance of winning the election, is why the presidential electoral commission's recent decision to exclude them on eligibility grounds (because Mr Suleiman has insufficient qualifying endorsements, Mr Al Shater is a former convict, and Mr Abu Ismail's American mother) may turn out to be a blessing, no matter how unfair.
The fact is that among ordinary Egyptians and the country's fragmented elite, the victory of any one of them would be difficult to stomach. There are those who reject the Brothers' societal project just as there are those who could not stomach the restoration that a Suleiman victory would symbolise, while the populist antics of Mr Abu Ismail are the stuff of nightmares for both those camps.
My initial reaction is that this leaves Moussa and Aboul Fotouh in the best positions. And that's something that, either way, most Egyptians can probably live with.
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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.

Periodic reminder to freak out

… about Egypt's economy — generally, with all the excitement about politics, it just isn't done enough. Just spent some time working on this today — not only has Egypt spend about $20bn of its reserves defending its currency since January 2011, it also spend several billion in a secret stash and maybe up to $10bn in an account at the National Bank of Egypt. Total: $35bn or so. Ay khidma?

The signal everyone is waiting for to start helping Egypt: a deal with the IMF, which would open up the taps elsewhere. But also force some reserve targeting at the Central Bank, which means there'd be less defense of the EGP. So a gradual devaluation is the best case scenario. Check out what the FT's Beyond BRICs blog thinks is the worst:

With money in the kitty for less than three months’ imports, the finance ministry boldly intervened on Monday by announcing (not for the first time) a deadline for securing agreement on the $3.2bn IMF loan which could be followed by $7bn from other donors.

But Said Hirsh, an economist with Capital Economics, told beyondbrics: “This isn’t necessarily the last word. Just look at the previous statements."

Citigroup estimates that Cairo could get by until the end of September.

Although it is likely to be tight and the room to manoeuvre extremely limited, we think the government will just about be able to muddle through until September, and then reach an agreement with the IMF. However, the downside risks will remain considerable. Moreover, the problem is that, by attempting this course, if events do blow the economy off track in the coming months then there are few options for the government and it really could potentially face the prospect of an uncontrolled devaluation.

So if there’s no IMF deal, there’ll be a foreign exchange crisis. But if there is to be a deal, there has to be compromise between the ruling military council and the opposition forces. The currency markets are signalling that time’s running out.

What's blocking an IMF deal is the MB's refusal to approve a deal while Ganzouri is PM, and the IMF's reluctance to make a deal with a government that will only last another two months or so and is likely to be replaced by a MB-led one. The MB may be right to demand that the government give an indication of how it wants to spend the money, and of next year's budget (which will have to be approved by parliament by June) more generally. But one suspects the MB is also using this issue as part of its wider recent confrontation with SCAF.

The government now says it expects a deal by May 15 but frankly, who knows?

Who knows what could happen between now and then!?

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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.

Jordan moves to ban MB party

A pretty daring, and probably ill-advised, move that sends back Jordanian politics about two decades:

Jordan's parliament took legal measures on Monday to disqualify the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the country's largest opposition movement.In a Lower House session, 46 out of 83 Jordanian lawmakers voted to add an item in the country's draft political parties law forbidding the establishment of any political party on a "religious basis."

The measure would disqualify the Islamic Action Front - the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the country's largest political party - from taking part in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Islamists contend the amendment comes as "retaliation" for the Muslim Brotherhood's opposition to a proposed elections law observers say ensures the continued dominance of tribal regime loyalists over the legislative chamber.

Quite aside domestic politics, this echoes the very anti-MB moves by Gulf countries (especially the UAE) in recent months. The monarchist counter-revolutionary bloc is also increasingly becoming a counter-MB one.

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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 childishness of Gulf geopolitics

The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to the island of Abu Musa has caused quite a stir among the GCC states. Iran occupies the island (and other nearby ones) but the UAE says they were acquired by Iran illegally and belong to the Emirates. 

The picture on the right shows a Google Earth screengrab of football pitch built near an airport on Abu Musa. I guess the Iranians decided to send a message about the Gulf being theirs. One only wonders why they had to do so in English rather than, say, Farsi or Arabic.

[Thanks, PM]

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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.

What’s up with CFR’s Ed Husain and Bahrain?

The Council on Foreign Relations is the most establishment of foreign policy think tanks in Amreeka, and we know the US military establishment loves Bahrain, its Saudi backers and the nice naval base it provides. Still, considering the repression of protestors, the torture, the kidnappings, and all that oppression by a kleptocratic ruling family representing the minority of the population, how come CFR’s Ed Husain is so gung-ho about the Khalifas?

Here’s what he’s been writing on Twitter:

He doesn’t have nice things to say about the opposition though — and by the way, why 'opposition'? Does he believe they are not real, or ironic?

Could that come from the fact that he appears to be given access most journalists and NGOs are denied:

There’s already a fuss on Twitter about this. Husain says he’ll respond on his blog when he returns to Washington:

I look forward to hearing more about it too — I think. I get being in favor of reconciliation, as Husain is. But this frankly sounds like either paid-for PR or incredible naiveté. 

 

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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 Pulitzer and the Arab spring

I've seen some complaints that this year's Pulitzer Prize largely eluded coverage of the Arab uprisings, but the winner in the editorial cartooning category, Politico's Matt Wuerker, did provide some uprisings-related work. See a gallery of Wuerker's work here. Still, strange to see so little recognition of some of the fantastic work done during the uprisings — at least starting with Egypt, since English-language coverage of Tunisia was largely AWOL. 

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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.

Of course Omar Suleiman's office is entirely black

This photo, which ran with David Kirkpatrick's story on Suleiman in the NYT, had the caption "Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former intelligence chief, in his Cairo office."

So Omar Suleiman paints his office walls black. What else!? And is that shiny bit behind him the hyperbaric chamber he sleeps in? And on the right side, the mini-fridge where he keeps body parts and truth serums.

Also confirms that really powerful people do not use computers. Kind of disappointed that there's no picture of Hosni there. Where's the love, Omar Pasha?

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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.

Libya's militia problem revisited

Militia Checkpoint

IHS’ Richard Cochrane reports that despite some success the interim government has had ahead of the planned June 2012 national elections in bringing militias to heel — 8,000 militiamen are now “pledged” to become border guards — several obstacles remain to the NTC’s efforts to establish a secure state. A plan to distribute payments to militiamen and their families — essentially, a plan to secure legitimacy for the NTC in the fighters’ eyes — has been undermined by the NTC’s reliance on militias to manage the payments. The result of which, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, has been an uneven, unaccountable distribution of the money:

Names have been omitted from payment lists and others erroneously added, sparking angry protests, some of which have descended into violence. Local media has reported several incidences of militia groups plundering payment centres located in rival neighbourhoods, or in areas deemed to be insufficiently loyal to the spirit of the revolution.

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