More defectors in Libya

After Musa Kusa, more may come, reports the Times (the original London one, not the New York upstart — behind MurdochWall):

But even as Mr Ibrahim spoke, there were reports that other top Libyan officials had also defected, including the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, the head of external intelligence and the Oil Minister. An influential deputy foreign minister was also said to have quit.

If those reports are confirmed, it would suggest that Colonel Gaddafi’s regime is is indeed “crumbling and rotten” - as David Cameron said today - and about to collapse around its leader.

Another name added to the list of defectors was Ali Adussalm Treki, a former foreign minister whom Colonel Gaddaffi had appointed as ambassador to the UN. He refused to take up the post, condemning the “spilling of blood”.

Let's hope for a quick collapse of this regime so that everyone can go home.

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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.

Bashar's speech and Syria's future

Yesterday I watched Bashar al-Assad give his speech live on television. The speech had been built up as the launch of major reforms, including the possibility of an end to Syria's emergency law and a move towards greater political pluralism. Instead I saw a man nervously laughing and cracking jokes, ramble on about vague foreign conspiracies, and talk for a good hour without saying anything. The speech's takeaway was absolutely nothing, it was void of content aside from raising the spectre of sectarian strife.

It was a disappointing (in a realpolitik sense) performance from a man who had appeared to be the great survivor of the last decade's attempt to destabilize Syria by the Bush administration and, while he'd lost considerable sway over Lebanon, had appeared to be regaining strength and improving relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States despite the post-Hariri assassination chill. 

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Column: The khawaga's lament

My latest piece is al-Masri al-Youm is up, on the rather self-indulgent topic of being a foreigner in revolutionary Egypt and the anti-cosmopolitian undercurrent in Egyptian politics.

As Al-Masry Al-Youm’s only non-Egyptian regular columnist, I have the painful but necessary task to highlight how foreigners residing in Egypt have lived through this revolution. This is, admittedly, a matter of tertiary importance: Egyptians are in the process of deciding their fate, and, hopefully, taking a leap towards building a real democracy. Nonetheless, one of the indicators of democracy is how governments and the societies they represent treat not only their citizens, but also the aliens among them.

Read the rest here.

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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.

Further thoughts on Libya

Here is some reaction to some recent developments on Libya and the ongoing confusion over what the mission is, exactly. (Following on my previous questions on Libya.)

Barack Obama, presumably speaking for the United States (until Hillary Clinton decides to muddle the message):

Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.

Of course, there is no question that Libya -– and the world –- would be better off with Qaddafi out of power.  I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means.  But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

Incidentally I generally liked the speech, outlining as it does a flexible policy that incorporates a reluctance to dedicate too many resources to this kind of humanitarian interventionism. I largely agree with what Michael Tomasky says about it in the Guardian. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the perhaps unavoidable inconsistencies. In the same speech, Obama says:

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On Turkey and Syria

Following up on my recent Syria post, Helena Cobban has some insightful remarks re: Turkey's role. Before I get to it, from today's FT:

Turkey’s prime minister has urged Syria’s government to act swiftly on its reform promises, seeking to use Ankara’s influence to avert unrest on its southern border.

Reçep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Monday that he had spoken twice with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, since protests spread across the country on Friday, and had advised him to take a “positive, reformist approach”.

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All of Mubarak's Men

The above video, by the activist and video artist once known as Ahmed Sherif, takes Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to task for the behavior of the military since it took over from Mubarak on February 10. If you've been following this blog and others you'll know that activists have documented torture at the hands of military police at the Egyptian Museum, the violent breakup of protests at Cairo University, and a recent decision to ban protests and strikes.  Last night there was a demonstration at Tahrir Square against this decision, in which protestors called for the trial of Tantawi alongside Mubarak. According to various sources, Egyptian media have been given instructions against criticizing the army and its senior leaders — an indeed no Egyptian newspaper has mentioned the allegations of torture at the Egyptian Museum, despite reports by Human Rights Watch and local NGOs.

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Meanwhile in Palestine

There is a really good story from Palestine in this week's Economist, about the impact of the Arab revolts there:

Since 2007 the Palestinian territories have been divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah, the Palestinians’ oldest nationalist movement, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank. Too busy vying with each other to confront Israel, which occupies most of their land, they have sought to consolidate their holds on their respective domains by scrapping parliament and ruling by decree.

Not everyone has taken kindly to this new authoritarian yoke. Inspired by protests against other despots, Palestinians in both territories have been crying for “revolution until we end the division”. In Gaza and the West Bank protesters champ for an interim government of the young, aligned to no party, to be followed by elections in both bits of Palestine.

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Thoughts on some friends' Syria analysis

Over at Syria Comment, Josh Landis highlights three pieces by Syria hands on the situation there. Two of them are by friends, and I'd like to comment on those.

Peter Harling is a great Syria-watcher at ICG. His piece argues that the regime should act now to embrace genuine reforms rather than try to ignore the problem, and makes a convincing case for it. Yet one wonders whether even he understates the fundamental nature of the threat now faced by almost every Arab regime, and that it might simply be too late for reform: rupture is what is needed, including the prospect that the Assad family might not hold Syria's presidency forever. The Syrian regime has never given any indication that it is interested in real reform. Why trust it now, except to avoid bloodshed? Of course ICG (which I used to work for) is in the business of conflict prevention (usually — sometimes it favors military intervention) and Harling appears convinced that the Assad regime is still on a solid footing. But what happened in Egypt and Tunisia suggests that the strongest of regimes can turn out to be paper tigers, and caution on Syria could be misplaced. I defer to his better understanding of the country (and the general agreement on this by Syria analysts that the regime is a) still strong and b) likely to react bloodily) but still feel it is necessary to highlight that the Assad regime is probably incapable of reform and that any transition in Syria is almost inevitably going to be violent. 

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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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Egypt's Jon Stewart

Last week, thanks to Zeinobia, I discovered Bassem Youssef, a 37-year-old heart surgeon turned internet phenomenon and would-be scourge of all sycophants and fabricators on Egyptian TV. The segments on his YouTube channel are smart, slick, funny and obviously inspired by his idol, Jon Stewart. 

I had the pleasure of sitting in on the filming of some episodes last weekend. My profile of Youssef is now up at The Daily Beast. Here's a bit: 

"Of course we’re just doing 5 minutes,” he’s quick to point out. “Jon Stewart does half an hour. He has celebrities. He has his own cast of fake reporters and cameras. We do it at home using YouTube material. We’re kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart.”

Youssef, who describes himself as "obsessed with TV," discovered Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert during one of his frequent trips to the United States. Back in Egypt, he watches their shows online.

Hosting an Egyptian incarnation of The Daily Show has been a day-dream for Youssef but before the revolution "there were all these red lines." Those red lines haven’t all been swept away. But in post-Mubarak Egypt—especially online—there’s a heady sense of freedom.

“What happened in the revolution was unprecedented,” says Youssef. “The extent and the magnitude of the hypocrisy and misleading information and misleading the public never happened before and will never happen again. That’s why we have a lot of controversy; we have a lot of material. It was a gold mine.”

You can read the whole piece here; it includes my translation of a few segments of the show. Otherwise, if you speak Arabic, check out all the episodes of the soon-to-be-very-famous Bassem Youssef Show over at his channel. 

Human rights and Egypt's transition

One of the big questions for the future of Egypt is how to change the culture of police enforcement, security agencies and the army when it comes to accountability, respect of the rule of law, human rights practice and more generally attitudes towards public freedoms. It was always unrealistic to expect to change this overnight, and there are several problems to tackle — to start with: 

  • deeply ingrained institutional practices (sometimes codified in laws, regulations and procedures that have their origins in the days of British rule in Egypt, as well as the security state established by Nasser);  
  • the need for a shift away from a culture of entitlement, paternalism, sexism, and authoritarianism;
  • a structural adjustment to end a micro-economy of corruption that made police officers, for instance, resort to accepting bribes because their basic salaries are low and they were practically encouraged to be on the take to compensate. This of course benefited more senior officers who were engaged in more serious corruption (and were paid adequately) and shielded them from criticism, since everyone was on the take. 
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Ayman Mohieldin on Colbert

Our friend Ayman Mohieldin, TV superstar on the Egyptian revolution because his stellar coverage on al-Jazeera English, was on the Colbert Report. He did not lose his cool. Kudos for that almost makes us forget about our resentment of his newfound heartthrob status.

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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.

Aswani: Does the world want a democratic Egypt?

Alaa al-Aswany in al-Masri al-Youm:

Unfortunately, Egypt’s history is replete with lost opportunities for democratization. We now have another opportunity, which I hope will not be lost. The 25 January revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to step down. Hundreds of Egyptians sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Since its inception, however, the revolution was confronted with a vicious counter-revolution — both inside and outside of Egypt.  

A few days ago, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar reported that Egyptian authorities are under massive pressure from Arab rulers, especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to ensure that Mubarak is not tried. The report asserted that these Arab states had directly threatened to freeze all relations with Cairo, cut all financial assistance, and withdraw their investments from Egypt. They even went as far as threatening to dismiss the 5 million Egyptians working in those countries, if Mubarak were to be tried.

For its part, Israel always defended Hosni Mubarak, one of its best allies. The Israeli press does not conceal its concerns about meaningful democratic change in Egypt. The US administration has a similar position. Both American and Israeli officials recognize Egypt’s potential and know it will become a powerful regional force in a matter of years, if it becomes a democracy.

He's right — unfortunately, both regional players and the West have little interest in an Egyptian democracy if that means real debate about foreign and economic policy of the kind we've seen in Turkey. Just look how some think-tankers in Washington have sought to encourage US support of the Turkish military on the basis that it is secularist (as opposed to the AKP) even as it was revealed that it attempted to stage a coup.

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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.