Colonel Qadhafi's Tech Support

This is a guest post by Paul Mutter. 

Reporting from Tripoli, The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne and Margaret Coker reveal the depths of collusion between Colonel Qadhafi’s spooks and their foreign tech support:

The recently abandoned room is lined with posters and English-language training manuals stamped with the name Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, which installed the monitoring center. A warning by the door bears the Amesys logo. The sign reads: "Help keep our classified business secret. Don't discuss classified information out of the HQ."

Amesys of Bull SA was just one of those whose wares were on display. Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing, the ZTE Corporation of China and a small (but apparently important) South African firm called VASTech SA (Pty) were all represented. Other names will likely follow. But so far, they all are following the warning on the Amesys sign, offering limp responses to the WSJ’s inquiries, or just declining to comment.

But the HQ records speak for themselves: the government recorded thousands of online conversations, phone calls and web histories, from regular citizens to human rights activists (those who had overseas contacts were priority targets, of course).

In the end, Colonel Qadhafi’s tech support was a waste of money, even after his government killed the internet in March to try and cut off Libyans from each other and the outside world. Libya’s uprising has apparently succeeded in toppling Qadhafi’s government, and his IT department is nowhere to be found.

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Will Sirte be the new Benghazi?

One of the greatest ironies of the Libya war may soon unfold before our eyes — or hopefully not.

The Libyan civil began because of an uprising in Benghazi, and the NATO intervention (supposed to be limited to a no-fly zone) was justified by the prospects of an aerial bombardment of the city. Now, as (with Sebha) the last urban bastion of Qadhadi loyalists, it is the key next target of the rebels. In the WSJ:

BRUSSELS—North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said Tuesday their main focus has shifted to preventing a bloody battle for control of the north-central Libyan town of Sirte, where troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi have taken refuge.

The town of 75,000, 245 miles east of Tripoli and Col. Gadhafi's hometown, seems to be shaping up as one of the final stands by Gadhafi loyalists. "It is the last bastion," said NATO Col. Roland Lavoie.

The looming battle between rebels and loyalists poses a tricky question for the coalition: What to do if rebels start killing civilians inside Sirte?

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For Ali Ferzat

The above cartoon, in solidarity with Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat is by Jonathan Guyer of Mideast by Midwest. Ferzat, who has published cartoons critical of Bashar al-Assad, had his hands broken last week by pro-regime assailants: 

In the early hours of Thursday, masked men seized Ferzat from the street and forced him in to a van. A relative has said that Ferzat's attackers targeted his hands, breaking them both, and told him it was "just a warning" before leaving him by the roadside with a bag over his head.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere cartoonists have expressed solidarity with Ferzat.

10000% worth it

With regards to Michael Scheuer's complaint that the Arab uprisings may have benefited al-Qaeda (via Angry Arab):

Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Michael Scheuer said: "The help we were getting from the Egyptian intelligence service, less so from the Tunisians but certainly from the Libyans and Lebanese, has dried up – either because of resentment at our governments stabbing their political leaders in the back, or because those who worked for the services have taken off in fear of being incarcerated or worse.

"The amount of work that has devolved on US and British services is enormous, and the result is blindness in our ability to watch what's going on among militants."

The Arab spring, he said, was "an intelligence disaster for the US and for Britain, and other European services".

[. . .]

He said: "The rendition programme must come back – the people we have in custody now are pretty long in the tooth, in terms of the information they can provide in interrogations.

"The Arab spring has been a disaster for us in terms of intelligence gathering, and we now are blind both because of the Arab spring and because there is nothing with which to replace the rendition programme."

Quite aside that I won't really miss intelligence cooperation on rendition, torture and the training of security and intelligence officers (all things that should be investigated — for instance FBI access to the Ministry of Interior in Egypt, or the training that State Security officers received at FBI tranining facilities in Virginia), the bigger picture makes this so irrelevant I find it hardly worth bringing up.

Message to Tantawi


TV presenter Mahmoud Saad presented Fadl's statement to the Field Marshal on air

Popular young screenwriter and columnist Bilal Fadl had a column in the newly established Tahrir newspaper last week, taking the head of the military council that rules Egypt, Field Marshal Tantawi, to task, and using some of the strongest language and imagery I've seen anywhere. Coming at the end of Ramadan, the column is both an implicit plea for clemency for the thousands of civilians condemned by military tribunals in the last six months, and a scolding, loaded with religious imagery, that daringly indicts the Marshall personally for the army's human rights abuses, reminding him that one day he will have to answer for them to his Maker. Most of the column is translated (by myself, and therefor amateurly) below:

I know that God is all-mighty and all-powerful, and that it is in his hands alone to decide who is the oppressor and who the oppressed. But I also know that you are responsible for the state of the country now, and that it’s my duty to let you know that young people face injustice at the hands of your men. Maybe you don’t know this because you don’t read the reports of rights groups, maybe because they tell you that they are biased and funded from abroad, and maybe some of them are, but I know with full certainty that most of them have taken it on themselves for long years to side with the wronged and expose the unjust; and your duty as a ruler is to listen to what they say and investigate.  Perhaps you are concerned with what you see as more important matters, in a country shaken by crises and problems, but do you remember with me the Caliph Raashed Omar Ibn El Khitaab, who feared that God would ask him about a female mule that tripped because he didn’t smoothen her way? Is there a greater recognition by any leader in history of political responsibility for everything that takes place in his era? Aren’t you afraid that God will ask you about the citizens who face torture and humiliation, who are submitted to military courts because of their political opinions which -- no matter how excessive or defiant they may be -- do not make them lose their right to appear before a regular civilian judge? And who says that all those who appear before military judges are really thugs or criminals -- just because they belong to poor backgrounds or because their faces bear the signs of ill-nourishment or because their stumbling step is their downfall with an officer who doesn’t fear God? 

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Egypt, Iran, and the Islambulis

The news that Egypt has arrested the brother of Sadat's assassin as he arrived at Cairo Airport is interesting:

Mohamed Shawqi el-Islambuli, brother of Khalid el-Islambuli who killed former President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, was sentenced to death in absentia in 1992 for plotting from abroad to overthrow the state.

He was sentenced again in 1999 in a landmark trial of more than 100 suspected members of the Gama'a al-Islamiya movement blamed for a massacre of tourists in the southern city of Luxor, an embassy bombing in Pakistan and a series of killings and assassination attempts including one against Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak.

[. . .]

Islambuli returned after Iran's government told him he must leave the country and could travel either to Egypt or Pakistan. After failed attempts to enter Pakistan and Turkey, he boarded a plane to return to Egypt, said [his lawyer Nizar] Ghorab.

Aside from geopolitical differences, the biggest obstacle to the resumption of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran has been that Tehran has hosted Islambuli and named a street after his brother. The question here is why did Iran decide to kick out Islambuli, and why was he left no choice but to return to Egypt where his arrest was certain? Could this be a prelude to the resumption of diplomatic ties (which would be perfectly normal, Egypt is one of very few countries — Israel, the US — which do not have diplomatic relations with Iran)? And does Iran feel compelled to do something it failed to do for years not just because Mubarak is gone, but rather because the regional setup is changing so quickly, with Syria falling apart, Hamas perhaps on its way to deserting Damascus and Tehran and Hizbullah post-Assad perhaps being more Lebanon-centered?

You say Gathafi, I say Qadhafi

"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"Running into this Moor Next Door post on the spelling of Qadhafi's name, and this Atlantic report that his passport spells it "Kathafi", reminded me of a meeting I a few months ago. I was meeting with a bunch of business people who know no Arabic and little about the Middle East. The conversation turned to Libya and one of them turned to me and asked why there were so many spellings of Qadhafi's name. What follows is what I said, which is very much what Kal of TMND argues, except I put it in laymen's terms, without the phonetics.

In Arabic, Qadhafi's name is spelled القذافي which if you drop the article, means
ق - ذ - ا - ف - ي or q - dh - a - f - i. The "q" letter is almost unique to Arabic (sometimes called "the language of the qaf" — sorry, it's the language of the dhad, not qaf!) and often transliterated as a "k", since its pronounciation can be difficult for non-Arabic speakers. It is standard in classical Arabic and places like Fes in northern Morocco, but northern Egyptians, urban Syrians and others often pronounce this letter as a glottal stop, while southern Egyptians and Bedouins most often pronounce as a "g", as in "go". (This is why in Syria upscale Damascenes call the regime "the government of the Qaf", because pronouncing the letter is a country bumpkin thing to do, and Eastern Sunnis and Alawites — long dominant in the regime — often do it). Hence you see Qadhafi, Kadhafi or Gadhafi. The "dh" sound also has no equivalent in many languages as a standalone letter, and to top it off is made emphatic by a shedda — a kind of accent that indicates the letter should be doubled, which is why academics use the unwieldy "Qadhdhafi." And the "dh" is often not pronounced as such — in most colloquial Arabics, it is pronounced "d". I'm not sure why it might be pronounced "th", but perhaps this was used in Qadhafi's passport because it is close to the English sound in "the", which sounds very much like "dh".

I always write Qadhafi because it's simple and faithful enough without being completely anal, like Qadhdhafi. 

Outside In

Omar Sulayman capitulating to the demonstrators' foreign agenda

After nine years living in Egypt I would say that Egyptians have no problem with actual foreigners, but huge ones with imaginary ones. 

During the 18 days of the revolution, the demonstrators were foreign agents and foreign infiltrators. State TV ran interviews with hopped-up teenagers swearing they heard people in Tahrir speaking Arabic "but their accent was not Egyptian!!" 

"We get your message," the presenter would say, nodding gravely. My zabbal* told me matter-of-factly: "Those boys and girls are all trained by Israelis. Everybody says so." Meanwhile, almost every foreign journalist I know was beaten or barely escaped a beating, by a real or a stage-managed mob. Mubarak said he wouldn't step down because of "foreign dictates." 

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Brian Whitakers' books now on Kindle

I'm a big of fan of Brian Whitaker's work at the Guardian (where he was Middle East editor for many years and now edits the Comment is Free part of the website), of his longstanding website al-Bab and have liked his books. They are now available on Kindle, so if you have one take a look at the Amazon links below (both US and UK stores) — or get the dead tree versions.

Unspeakable Love was one of the first looks at LGBT activism in the Middle East, while What's Really Wrong with the Middle East is a bracing critique not just of Middle Eastern politics but also of the social oppression (famiial, religious, etc.) that many face. Great reading for the bigger post-revolutionary picture in many Arab countries. 

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.'"

I have arrived: Arabist makes Wikileaks

A bunch of new Wikileaks State Dept. cables about the Middle East have been released in the last few days, and to my surprise several friends have informed me that I appear in at least two. I now feel like a minor historical character.

In one 2005 cable I appear in my capacity as one of the editors of the short-lived Cairo Magazine. I'm somewhat surprised that the difficulties that the magazine had with the authorities merited their own cable, but apparently in the context of the Bush administration push for reform in Egypt in 2005, it makes more sense.

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Lebanon's al-Akhbar's English version

The English language version of the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar is out, promising to deliver English content of one fo the most dynamic new newspapers in the Arab world in the last decade. Al-Akhbar is sometimes described as radical leftist, pro-Hizbullah, pro-gay rights, Qatar-funded and more. It's often criticized as being too kind to March 8 in Lebanese. I read it from time to time, not working on Lebanon much, and was most struck by the variety and quality many of articles. Yes, it's opinionated and partisan, but also often critical of what it supposed to be its own camp. And it's been refreshingly anti-sectarian for a Lebanese newspaper. Worth bookmarking.

I saw this headline on its front page and thought it might perfectly capture it's essence: sympathetic to Hizbullah and the southern "resistance," but with typically Lebanese business acumen. 

"Southern Strawberries ‘Killed’ by Rumors and Weak Marketing"

Libya: do tribes matter?

An argument against the narrative that tribalism will be a major problem in post-Qadhafi Libya, by Mohamme Bamyeh in Muftah:

As a matter of fact, in Libya, actual tribal allegiance, understood as the loyalty that members of one distinct tribe have to their fellows, has never been unconditional. Just as during the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911-1943, contemporary tribal discourse blends with and is clearly subordinate to a collective patriotism, which forms the root of the current national struggle. Since the current uprising began, Libya’s various tribes have issued numerous statements about the situation, which largely reflect the patriotism that pervades these groups.  My personal examination of a sample of 28 tribal declarations, issued between February 23 and March 9, 2011, reveals that the vast majority highlighted national unity or national salvation rather than tribal interests. These declarations also demonstrate that Libya’s tribes are not homogenous entities, but rather are comprised of diverse members with varying social and economic backgrounds. This reality reflects the nature of Libyan society as a whole, which has a 90% urban population and in which inter-marriages across tribal lines are common.

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The fall of Tripoli in the Islamist imagination

Reza Pankhurst, of New Civilisation, an interesting UK-based Islamist website (apparently close to Hizb ut-Tahrir), on the parallels between the conquests of Mecca and Tripoli:

The fall of much of Tripoli on Sunday was greeted with joy by many, especially the crowds of thousands who were gathered in Liberation Square in Benghazi. The chants in unison were the calls “There is no God except Allah” and “We hear and Obey O Allah”. The revolutionary commander in Tripoli linked the event to the victory of the Prophet Mohammad over his tribe that had rejected his message and fought against him more than 14 centuries earlier which is known literally as the opening or conquest of Mecca. The parallels mentioned were numerous, from the timing (both the opening of Mecca and that of Tripoli occurred during the last ten nights of the holy month of Ramadan, just one day separating the two), the nature of the vanquished (the Prophet Mohammad and his companions faced oppression, torture, and death at the hands of those they came to conquer, and the abuses of the Gaddafi regime are open knowledge in Libya where thousands of mostly Islamic opposition have been tortured and killed while in captivity over the years), and the morality of the victors (in line with the Prophet’s general amnesty, the Libyan rebel official position is that those of the former regime who do not resist will not be killed).

That's probably what at least some Libyan Islamists are thinking, and no doubt they will be building a narrative around these lines.

Links 22-24 August 2011

The first link in this week's links, about Kurds at a Syrian opposition advocating dropping the "Arab" from "Syrian Arab Republic" is interesting because it echoes some of the debate about the Libyan TNC's transitional constitution, which does not say that post-Qadhafi Libya is Arab. That's a first for Arab states, most of which either gained independence or were created in the age of Arab nationalism. We can expect these debates to have wider ramifications in the Arab world and provoke some debate, notably from Arab nationalists and some Islamists who see Arab identity as core to their worldview. 
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The situation in Sinai and Egypt-Israel relations

The events of the last week or so in Sinai have been overshadowed by the current diplomatic rift and public outrage over Israel’s shooting of at least three Egyptian border guards a few days ago. The question of security and state legitimacy in the Sinai, the attack that killed 17 Israelis in Eilat, Israel’s latest bombing campaign in Gaza (and the Palestinian rocket fire that came in response), the border incident and the future of the the Egyptian-Israel relationship has interwoven in complex ways. But there are also distinct issues worth separating to get a better understanding of the whole.
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