The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Dispatches
On vacation in Torah

Field Marshall Tantawi (the senior army man in charge of the country) testified in Mubarak's trial this morning. We don't know what he said, because the court session are closed and there is a gag order on the press (how can what happened during the revolution be a state secret?).

I was in a cab listening to a state TV reporter excitedly (not) report on the proceedings, when my driver burst out: "They'll never be held to account!" He said his mother lives near Torah prison and from her balcony they can see the Mubarak sons and cronies being held there hang out in the courtyard. He says they have laptops, cell phones, play soccer, have visitors, get food deliveries.. I can't confirm his account of course, but there have been similar stories in the press.

"Pasha on the outside, pasha on the inside," he said. "It's Sharm El Sheikh in Torah." If only the were treated like regular prisoners, he said -- beaten, humiliated, made to go hungry and sleep on the floor -- then they'd confess and tell us where the money they stole is. 

Libya Dispatch: Lies, Damn Lies and Government-sponsored Trips (3)

Abu Ray reports from Tripoli as the NATO airstrikes and rebel insurgency loom ever closer. See his previous dispatches here.

As the bus pulled up to what was described as the site of a NATO airstrike, we could see the burly cameraman from Libyan state TV hurriedly stashing khaki military uniforms onto the roof of a nearby shed ahead of our arrival. It was the culmination of a truly farcical day.

Perhaps the collapsed building was just, as they said, an office and some apartments hit by a NATO missile, killing… one person? At least two people, said a bystander trotted out for the visiting journalists, others were not so sure. Maybe it was, but then why did someone have to run ahead and hide a bunch of tattered military uniforms and, as we later discovered, a helmet. Was it perhaps actually a military target?

We were in the town of Zlitan on another government organized trip, in what should have been a fascinating journey to a front line town facing an assault of rebels who had broken out of the besieged city of Misrata and were headed towards Tripoli with vengeance on their minds.

This was the war. This was the story. And even if this would be from the government’s point of view, we were ready to report it. All sides of the story. Instead, after a two and a half hour drive (through some very picturesque country, Libya alternates between olive groves, date palm orchards and deserts), we arrived in a seemingly peaceful town of bland concrete buildings and stopped at a hotel… for three hours.

They never told us why and in the distance we could hear the rumble of explosions and the sound of circling aircraft, but we were stuck in a hotel watching reruns of rallies on state TV. Finally, with little notice, the increasingly fed up pack of journalists was loaded back on the bus and taken to — a three-day-old bombing site attributed to NATO.

We had spent the day listening to the rumbles of what were probably strikes and I knew from friends on the other side that somewhere out there, maybe 10 kilometers away, there was a front line. But all we got to see was some crushed pre-fab warehouses belonging to a Turkish road building country.

“This shows how NATO wants to destroy Libya’s infrastructure,” bellowed an older man with a tribly hat that came out of nowhere. Then we recognized him, he’d been wearing a uniform at the hotel. Who are you? Part of the company? No, he was a member of the local broadcast channel, come to tell us about the perfidy of NATO.

So we wandered about, the area was littered with shell casings, not really clear what these were doing at a construction site. “Libyans fire guns in the air in defiance of NATO,” said a diminutive woman with a headscarf and mirrored sunglasses, apparently also from the local channel.

Inside the buildings, there was none of the obvious furniture associated with offices. The rooms were mostly bare, and it appeared that all the documents had been dumped in a pile in one small room. There were papers from the Turkish Nural construction company and stacks of photocopies of Turkish passports. The one I checked, however, had a visa that expired in April.

Then, I found a room covered in Arabic graffiti shouting the praises Abdel Rahman, a martyr of the 32nd Brigade (Armored) from Kharbouli town. The 32nd was the notorious Khamis Brigade led by one of Gadhafi’s bloodthirstier sons. “We took part in the events of Misrata,” read another message. A scrawled date on the wall suggested these guys had been living here since May 20, another inscription read the “Popular Revolutionary Committee Communications Department.”

Once upon the time this was a Turkish road construction company, but they probably left when the fighting started months ago and it had since been taken over by a military unit — which was probably why it was bombed. So perhaps not a blow against Libya’s infrastructure after all.

Then came the fiasco with the uniforms at the next site and finally, an increasingly tired, sun-scorched and cynical bunch of journalists were dragged to a hospital to meet victims of the airstrikes. We met a dozen men, who all loudly called themselves civilians, and said they had been injured when NATO bombed a civilian neighborhood a few days ago.

A neighborhood that apparently no one thought it was worth taking us to.

The steady diet of propaganda shoved at the captive audience of correspondents has left us all bitter and a bit shellshocked, just automatically disbelieving everything that is said. “This is not government propaganda, this is a true genuine appeal to the international community,” said the government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim one day at a press conference, almost suggesting that everything up until that point had been propaganda.

Watching state television involves a neverending stream of images of planes taking off, explosions and dead children. The impression is that hundreds if not thousands of Libyan children are dying every day from the NATO bombings. Which I suppose is possible, but why aren’t we seeing them?

For the three out of the past four days, I’ve been yanked out of the edges of sleep at 2am by loud explosions outside my window. I climb over the balcony and stand on the hotel’s bizarrely grassy roof and we listen to planes streak overhead and watch flashes in the distance.

“Now when you hear the boom, count the seconds until the flash and then divide that number by three, that will tell you how many kilometers away it is,” said one of the TV technicians that I normally see sunbathing out there during the day. Engineers, always flaunting their knowledge of physics.

But in all these bombings, many in Tripoli, the best they can do is a bogus three-day old site all the way in Zlitan? It suggests that NATO’s gunners are actually hitting their targets, despite Ibrahim’s increasingly shrill press conferences about NATO’s depredations.

While they are not exactly convincing the journalists, the government does seem to have hit upon something with the focus on NATO. The whole popular uprising and civil war was always a bit of an awkward topic. You could call them al-Qaida, or armed gangs of foreign agents, but in the end most people realized that it was Libyans fighting each other.

But with NATO here was an undeniable case of foreign aggression, something everyone could unite against. The programs on TV juxtapose black and white images of the Italian conquest and massacre of 1/3 of the population during the Fascist era, with the images of NATO planes, explosions and dead, dust-covered children. People in the streets will talk about misguided brothers in the east, but save their real vitriol for the NATO jets that shake their neighborhood and wake up their children crying at 4am.

It’s hard to know where people’s real concerns and feelings begin and where the rent-a-mob takes over. A few man on the street interviews gave me some reserve, guarded views on the subject of daily life, which was a refreshing change from the spittle-flecked rantings we’ve been subjected to almost daily at a series of demonstrations.

With the recognition of the rebels internationally, Qadhafi staged a series of huge pep rallies around the towns of his rump Libya, with thousands of people in each place cheering wildly while one of his speeches is broadcast. A way to boost morale, it seemed.

But are these crowds bused in? We certainly saw plenty of buses on the way there. Are these people even from these towns? Do they really love the Brother Leader that much? Hard to say, because any attempt at a conversation immediately attracts a circle of shouting youth mindlessly screaming “God, Moammar, and Libya only.”

For several of the demonstrations, they drove the bus into the middle of the crowd, making us the focus of the demonstration so that soon a thousand people were all screaming at us, chanting their slogans (the people, want, Moammar the Colonel… it rhymes in Arabic) and pounding the sides of the bus.

Then we have to get off.

Maybe this is a bit like the Freedom Riders in Mississippi must have felt as they descended their buses to the roar of an unfriendly crowd (alright, fine no one beat us up, but still) and the minders form a narrow corridor for us to squeeze through the shouting crowds as everyone shoves Qadhafi pictures at us or screams Sarkozy Fuck you! into our faces.

I’m not sure if it’s meant to intimidate us or just drown us in the wild enthusiasm of wholehearted Qadhafi love to show us what it’s all about, but all it’s really given me is a profound unease of crowds.

I did manage to have some kind of conversation with people at a few of these, in some cases I’d be approached by English speakers or someone was patient enough to work through my Arabic and I ask them: But why do you love the Brother Leader so much? Might as well ask why people loved their mothers or life itself. One man told me how he drove out the Italians and gained Libya its independence (an unusual argument from an historical perspective), another said he’d freed the black slaves of southern Libya. One woman just stopped, and said, “I don’t know why we love him, he’s just in our blood.”

One kindly old man guided me out of a close pressed crowd to the edges when he saw I’d had enough… but then when he started talking about Qadhafi his eyes started from his head and almost began to whirl in circles like a manic cartoon character. “Libya has already had its revolution, we don’t need another!” he said before breaking into the usual chant.

The rebels say most people in Tripoli and the surrounding areas oppose Qadhafi. Others say there is a hard core for and against, and then a vast middle ground of people who just want to be left alone. As journalists sent here to observe and report, I feel like we are so smothered and blindfolded by the competing propagandas that we are left groping in the dark and reporting gut feelings that could be gravely mistaken.

Postscript: A few hours after I wrote this, we were taken back to Zlitan to see a burning warehouse full of sacks of flour and a destroyed flu clinic they said had been hit that morning by NATO airstrikes. How to know? People describing themselves as residents rushed to the site after journalists arrived, waved green flags and chanted about God and Moammar.

Libya Dispatch: The Cage (2)

The lobby of the Rixos.Our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, once covering Libya's East, is now covering the West. This week he makes it to Tripoli's Rixos hotel. (See past dispatches.) 

The billboard in the lobby shows a smiling child waving pictures of other cute smiling children, topped by the slogan, "Stop the Bleeding!" Bleeding? What bleeding? What now?

Welcome to the Rixos Hotel, Tripoli's finest and a gleaming, inlaid marble cage for Western journalists.

I'd heard a lot about this place over the last five months, about being trapped inside, about the mind games and the midnight summons, the hallways prowled by semi-feral minders and the press conferences by the smooth-tongued Moussa Ibrahim.

I wasn't prepared for the opulence. In my mind's eye, as I traveled along the coastal road from the border with a BBC reporter who'd stayed here before, I saw a tacky hotel built during the mad oil rush of the late 70s, now gone to seed, all flaking plastic and chipped gilt Barberella finery.

The first thing you notice is that it's well outside of town, the scattering of high rises of Tripoli's port and downtown were distance structures on the horizon as we cruised towards the hotel on the 1st Ring Road (there's like three). "There she is," muttered the BBC reporter, mostly to himself, with a palpable sense of dread as we swung into the parking lot.

The hotel looks brand new and has a soaring lobby with marble floors and in the back, a beautiful garden of undulating grassy swells scattered with comfortable wicker furniture and a bit of a forest. Apparently there's an unfinished zoo somewhere at the back with more forest.

And that for me is the most annoying thing about the Rixos. It's nice — no it's downright luxurious — so we don't even have our accommodation to complain about. The thrice daily buffet is sumptuous, the rooms are vast, the flat screen TVs with international channels are expansive.

The rooms, all shiny brass and marble, have shower stalls and large bath tubs, with bathrobes and slippers provided. My balcony overlooks the roof of the two-storey building, which has been planted with grass, so it's a pleasant field where the TV crews set up their equipment for live shots.

Before it got too hot, I could watch the pasty skinned British TV technicians sunbathing next to their gear.

The rooms are also equipped with loudspeakers in the bathroom so that you can listen to CNN while brushing your teeth. This doubles as an intercom system so sometimes, early afternoon or in the middle of the night, it sounds two tones, like something from a high school PA system and a voice says "calling all journalists, press conference in the lobby in five minutes." From the bedroom it's like an eerie summons is being issued from the toilet.

There's a sauna, a gym with machines I can't even begin to fathom (where do my legs go?) massages and even a Turkish bath. My favorite is the dimly lit swimming pool, a shallow 15 meter long rectangle lit from underwater and surrounded by Islamic arches opening into pillowed niches decorated by Orientalist-style harem paintings. Apparently Berlusconi and Gadhafi used to have little parties here along with companions--an image that doesn't bear contemplating.

You can't really swim normal laps in it, but can get a work out by swimming around the edges, sort of getting that pacing-in-a-cage-wild-animal feeling, which seems appropriate.

Of course this luxury comes at a price, together with the $60 dinner buffet and lunch the bill runs upwards $450 a night. With 40 to 50 journalists staying here, I sometimes feel we are single handedly funding Gadhafi's war effort.

Even though everyone's on expense accounts, it becomes part of the game to avoid giving them more money. People load up with snacks at the complimentary breakfast in hopes of skipping lunch, do their laundry in the bath tub and make periodic visits to the little corner shop across the street for water, drinks and snacks. Sometimes security doesn't let us cross the street -- sometimes the hotel doesn't let us bring in food. All part of the game.

There's a Facebook group for people here called the Rixos Lobby Correspondents, it exchanges information and warnings, usually about the latest attempts to hack into our computers.

Apparently a lot of people who used to stay here have returned home and then had their facebook and paypall accounts hacked from IPs in Libya and there are constant connection problems because, our machines tell us, somebody is using our IP addresses.

Of course as much as we complain about the vagaries of the wi-fi connection and the inevitable snooping on our work, the Rixos is also one of the only places in Tripoli with any kind of internet connection, certainly high speed. I used to wonder why the Facebook group was called Rixos Lobby, until I found out how much time we spent just hanging out in the lobby trying to figure out what's going on. Aside from the rare summons from our bathroom loudspeakers, it is difficult to know what's coming next.

After breakfast, there is a mandatory doing the rounds of the lobby as everyone compares the latest rumor about what comes next. "I hear we're going to Zawiya" ... "I hear it's a press conference with the ex-prime minister." "Why would we want the ex-prime minister?" "I heard it has something to do with the Great Man Made River... or agriculture... or the Green Book."

Inevitably, after hours of waiting around for tidbits of information, or even a brief glimpse of the font of all knowledge, Moussa Ibrahim the spokesman, we're suddenly rushed into the bus for a five minute departure into the unknown.

Independent trips out are strongly discouraged. In the early days, a number of intrepid journalists made it out, grabbed taxis and wandered the city unaccompanied, inevitably finding pockets of anti-Qadhafi resistance and writing intriguing articles about the unknown and seldom seen parts of the capital.

Then they get kicked out.

In the case of a Guardian correspondent, it was a midnight thumping on the door and the news he was out that morning. They were more polite to the Reuters correspondent, letting him know at breakfast that he had an hour to pack his stuff.

The new CNN guy was summoned out of his room within days of his arrival, taken to a conference room and harangued by five guys for hinting that participants at a recent demonstration had been bused in and suggesting there were substantially less than the one million declared by the brother leader.

Rather frustratingly, I feel I've said all these things and more and have been utterly left alone by the minders, including one universally reviled and known alternately as the Enforcer or Scarface.

The result is that a sense of learned helplessness descends on the journalists, effort his punished, best to just sit back, wallow in cynicism and sip $5 espressos while keeping an eye on the others slumped in the lobby.

My predecessor gave me the following advice. Don't stand out. Don't speak up, don't try to do any stories. Just get on with it. Be the gray man.

For foreign correspondents over the last 10 years or so, the gray man is an important image. It's what were told to do on our hostile environment courses if kidnapped. The gray man blends in, doesn't say much, is easily forgotten and always left alone. The gray man bides his time and endures.

Steve Farrell, formely of the Times of London and now the New York Times, told me years ago in Iraq, back when he had only been taken hostage once, said it was a load of bollocks.

The gray man routine is what they tell soldiers. We are journalists he said, act like one or they'll think you're a spy, so when he was kidnapped in Faluja in 2004, he waved his arms about and talked a lot and tried to convince his captors that as journalist he should be released so that he could explain their side of the story. Apparently that time it worked, though when he was kidnapped in Afghanistan, it was the SAS who got him out.

Meanwhile at the Rixos, it's not that were all gray men, it's more a matter of chasing after the crumbs they dole out. Did Sky get the Seif al-Islam interview? They always get everything, they're favorites. I hear the Chinese were taken out again, why do the Chinese get so much, they're not bombing anyone?

Most of Tripoli's hotels are near the bustling port and the old city, but by keeping everyone in the Rixos, journalists are far from potential demonstrations and flash points. What we are close to is Qadhafi's compound of Bab al-Aziziyah, so perhaps the thought was this might give NATO bombers a pause. Apparently it hasn't, giving Rixos residents front row seats to the airstrikes.

There are large numbers of Libyans, along with their families, staying in the hotel. At night the children play in the garden and there are thick clusters of families sipping coffee in the wicker chairs. It gives the place a bit of a homey feel, though it turns out they are the families of high ranking officials staying in the hotel and using us as human shields.

There's a talk show host who every night broadcasts hate against Libya's enemies, which often include the journalist spies living in the hotel. For a while he helped incite daily demonstrations outside the gates and once they actually invaded the hotel lobby, which was a bit awkward.

Turns out, he lives and broadcast from the hotel basement.

Syria dispatch: The road to Qardaha

Hafez al-Assad's tomb at Qardaha

A British reader of this website who until recently lived in Syria sent in this dispatch, about his last few weeks in Damascus. 

The broad-shouldered middle-aged figure walked into the internet café and sat down in front of the manager. The black leather jacket and olive trousers – de rigueur in those circles – marked him out as a member of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s feared “secret” police. He wanted to know if anybody had been looking at opposition websites critical of the government.

“Not at all”, my friend said in Arabic, “we always look out for that kind of behaviour; in fact, on my screen here I can see everybody else’s computer so know straight away if they are doing something illicit,” at the same time closing the incriminating websites on his desktop. The policemen nodded approvingly and picked up the list – held by all Syrian internet cafes - that records the name, identity number and entry time of customers.

Before he left however, the operative had just one more question: he wanted to know how it was that young Syrians were able to find these websites in the first place? My friend began to apprise him of Google and its use as a search engine, this was clearly the first time he’d heard of this wondrous new programme, but already his mind was working, “We’re going to have to shut down this Google thing”.

“What? Close Google?” my friend said. “Yep,” came the reply.

I witnessed this exchange in early May 2011, two months on from the outbreak of protests and nearly two years on from when I had first arrived in the country with the aim of improving my spoken Arabic. As the protests grew in size and intensity the frequency with which my friends and I would encounter the state’s security apparatus increased as the country’s Alawite leadership struggled to maintain control over the country.

Panic

I watched as the predominantly Christian neighbourhood in which I lived retreated inside itself. Whipped up into a mass of hysteria as the Mukhabarat sent memos to shopkeepers warning of imminent attacks on their churches by Salafists (members of an extreme sect of Islam) - supposedly sponsored by the Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan – barricades were erected and manned throughout the night whilst underemployed youths patrolled the narrow lanes with sticks and axes waiting for this imagined threat.

To be clear, despite the tolerance and the pluralistic attitude to religion espoused by Assad’s government – its greatest selling point – the sectarian divisions have always run deep. Whether it were warnings by young Christian men that the manner in which I greeted others was redolent of local Muslims and as such should be avoided, or the concern with which fathers greeted news of their daughters mixing with Muslim men, the divisions were evident and in existence long before anyone had heard of a fruit seller in Tunisia.

It is this sectarianism and minority fear that account for the support the government is receiving from the Christian quarter as they identify with the government’s own minority status. Shocked by the killings being carried out by the Syrian security forces the vast majority of Christians I spoke to (nearly always in Arabic) want to see reforms, but within the framework of the current government. They fear that the fall of the regime would see the ascendency of a conservative Sunni dominated government in which their rights as a religious minority would be subordinate to those of this threatened Islamic state. As one Christian owner of a successful fast food chain pointed out to me, “in Egypt the Copts cannot build new churches or extensions on their existing ones, here (Syria) we never have that problem.”

Divisions

It would however be a gross simplification to suggest that the divisions that now exist within Syrian society reflect religious beliefs only. Within a few months of the outbreak of protests battle lines had been drawn in workplaces. A friend of mine, a journalist for a popular lifestyle magazine in Syria, told me how her office had been split down the middle, with those supporting the incumbent working on one side and those known to be favouring change (obvious in their lack of vocal support for the President) along the other. Friends were lost and managers antagonised as Facebook pages revealed a person’s true allegiances. This same friend told how her manager, upon seeing that she belonged to an opposition Facebook group, sent her a threatening email asking that she consider very carefully her position at the company.

And therein lays one of the truths revealed by current events: the present regime has created a system in which a few prosper at the expense of the many. It is senior managers and the businessman close to the regime that have most to lose from any upheaval.

It was interesting to hear a British friend recount to me how the views of students in the English language class (from the Central Bank) he teaches were split along seniority lines. Although the students were too frightened to make their opinions explicit, they would express their grievances with the regime by vocalising in class — in front of their bosses — their displeasure with their salaries, all the while disguised as English language practice. The managers were always content.

Riches

It was a common refrain from local friends that Syria no longer has a middle class, “ya fauk, ya taht” (“you are either at the top or at the bottom”). Taxi drivers were often at a loss to explain to me why both cars and mobile phone units were more expensive in Syria than in the UK. Their reticence not a sign of ignorance, but an acknowledgement of the fact that a group of powerful families close to the government run what is essentially a monopoly in both industries, the criticism of whom would not be tolerated.

In 2003, Riyad Saif, a member of parliament and vocal opponent of the government, dared to question whether a deal made by SyriaTel (the state telecom provider, owned by the President’s cousin Rami Maklouf) was in the interest of Syria. He received five years in prison.

Aside from the knowledge that the government has presided over a period of widening income inequality in an already poor country, without making any serious effort to reform, people are upset by the prevalence of “wasta”. With no real equivalent in the English language, it is almost a cross between nepotism, power and bribery, with the difference being that it is something one possesses. The need for “wasta” permeates every level of society; it is not simply a case of a few people using their contacts to gain an advantage in a particular circumstance. Instead it is the ability to have a government document processed quickly, avoid military service, or simply the power to circumvent the ubiquitous payment of bribes that plague the public sector. Jokingly refereed to as “Vitamin W”, in reference to the economic pickup it provides its owners, “wasta” was used in coded criticism of the elite as a substitute for the word few would dare utter; “fassad” – corruption.

Protest

On a Friday afternoon in mid-March I was strolling through the cobbled lanes of the old-city with my girlfriend and her mother. As we ascended the steps leading to that ancient seat of power and learning, the Omayyad Mosque, we began to hear a commotion. Hastening through the alleyway towards the sound we turned the corner into the main square, our ears suddenly assaulted by the cacophony of noise as pro-democracy protestors chanted slogans in competition with those backing the regime. “Allah, Suriya, hurriya” – “God, Syria, freedom” the rhyme heightening the sense of defiance in their voices.

“Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa bass” – “God, Syria, and Bashar, only” retorted a choir of paid informants and Mukhabarat; the sheer volume overwhelming the democracy activists, but the incongruities of sounds and lack of harmony were almost a signpost to the hollowness of the regime they were propping up.

Making our way through the crowds in front of the mosque we eventually passed into a side street lined with buses. In the innocence of those early days the buses had not yet come to take on the symbolism that they later would, oblivious to what was happening we pressed on. We heard the shouts before we saw the man; he was being dragged from behind us, the three men - all clad in black leather jackets, one carrying an asp – pulled the stricken man past us, up to the entrance of one of the buses and deposited him inside. The bus shook as the figures inside it moved about, but we were not to know the reason, for the curtains had been drawn.

The next few weeks witnessed a gradual escalation in the size of protests and the demands of the activists, with each Friday like a set-piece in a game of football between the regime and its opponents.

Speeches

Syrian friends living in Damascus who had been concerned by the president’s reticence in the face of the growing unrest were relieved to hear news of a first speech that they fully expected would culminate in the ending of the much reviled emergency law. As middle-class Damascenes with relatively well-paid jobs they cherished the seeming stability that this regime had provided, one only had to look to neighbouring countries to see what could happen.

In years to come, when historians analyse the events of 2011 they will no doubt look back on Assad’s first speech as a turning point. Returning to my girlfriend’s flat that evening I found her and her friend discussing the speech. I was shocked. In the past her friend had always been one of the president’s most ardent supporters, but her stance had now changed dramatically. She felt that the president had completely misunderstood the seriousness of the situation. In her mind it was a grave misjudgment to have allowed expectations over the scrapping of the emergency law to rise only for the speech to offer nothing new.

That same evening I went to my favourite internet café, ostensibly to check my email, but really I wanted to gauge the reaction of the owner (with whom I had become good friends) to the speech. He was as dismissive of the situation as ever. A middle-aged Christian who had fought in the 1973 war against Israel, he was used to life in a police-state and was confident in the regime’s ability to suppress any dissent, in fact he welcomed the regime’s actions. Speaking in Arabic he told me how he valued the stability that he thought Assad offered, the people carrying out the attacks against the government were not Syrians, but Lebanese seeking to stir up trouble, they should be dealt with severely.

Later that night, after the owner had left I sat alone with the manager of the café (another friend). A closet-atheist, raised in a Christian household he sympathised with the protestors plight and recognised their demands, but was concerned with what might happen if the regime did actually fall. Would the ensuing anarchy, bloodletting and loss of protection for religious minorities that he predicted be any better? Yes, the regime had serious faults, but the alternative being touted by the pro-democracy activists was not an improvement. And anyway he pointed out, why should he join the protestors when so many of their chants were underpinned by religious convictions (“Allahu Akbar”) rather than those of freedom and humanity?

Set-pieces

A few weeks later I was sat with some friends in a café in the Damascus suburb of Saruja watching Barcelona play Real Madrid in the Champions League. The atmosphere was already tense as earlier that evening a man had been taken away by the Mukhabarat for shouting a pro-democracy slogan in a café opposite. Sipping at my coke I did my best to enjoy the game trying to forget the ominous presence of the two characters clad in black leather jackets sitting in the corner.

Suddenly a goal was scored and the room erupted into a scene of celebration. Within an instant the owner had turned the television off. I sat in astonished silence as he explained that there were to be no boisterous post-goal scenes in his café, gently alluding to the figures in the corner. Another slight, another small encroachment of the state into the private sphere. At once tamed and humbled the all-male crowd returned quietly to their seats, the television switched back on, the humiliation complete.

Although at that time living in Damascus, my girlfriend was originally from Homs and travelled back to visit her family every other week. I would pick her up from the Pullman bus depot in the east of Damascus on Saturday evenings making the usual enquires into how she had spent the weekend. As the protests wore on I began to notice that she was often tired upon her return to the capital, a matter I attributed to the stress she must be suffering as a result of the turmoil the country was experiencing. I was correct about the stress, but wrong about the tiredness.

Her restless nights were caused by the constant din reverberating around Homs as its residents repeatedly called out the first words of the the call to prayer throughout the night. “Allahu Akbar” they would shout from their balconies, windows and rooftops, the familiar call an act of defiance, a challenge to the regime. The irony was lost on nobody. The same words that had challenged the Shah over 30 years ago when it was heard above the rooftops of Shi’a Tehran, leading to the most pro-Syrian theocracy in the history of the 20th Century, had now been appropriated by Syrian Sunnis calling for the end of a regime that saw itself as a Shi’a sect.

The truth is that despite the language of the Enlightenment that the more media savvy western-orientated Syrians couch their calls for reform in, there is still a strong religious dimension driving many of the protestors.

Posters

It is not without reason that one of the most popular car posters among regime enthusiasts is a picture of the late President Hafez al Assad with his hands cupped about his ears in a position of prayer. The President’s Islamic credentials need to be flaunted in this manner to deflect the assertions made by Syria’s more conservative Sunnis that the Assad’s are not Muslims, much less Shi’a.

In the 1970s, pronouncements by Iranian clerics that the Alawite sect was in fact an offshoot of Shi’a Islam bolstered the regime’s religious credentials, but many remain unconvinced, seeing the present leadership as an anomaly in the country’s Sunni dominated history.

Driving back from a restaurant one night I sat listening as my Syrian friend –a conservative Sunni - denounced the President as a non-believer: “He prays in the Omayyad [mosque] as a way to get closer to the people, it’s all for show.” Later that night, passing by the headquarters of the Alawite-dominated state security he pointed at the guards, “do you think any of these men attend a mosque?” I had heard similar things before: Sunnis criticising the President for his lack of religious credentials. A stark reminder that this was not solely a domestic issue, but rather part of the centuries long confrontation between Shi’a and Sunni that had found its most recent expression in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Resentment towards the Alawite nature of the regime was not confined to believers only, it was to be found amongst the secular also. Older members of Syrian society recalled the days when the people from the coastal region of Latakia – the traditional Alawite base - were known as hired help, employed as gardeners or cleaners, a designer accessory for wealthy Syrians much like the Filipinos working in Damascus today. Alawites were seen as rural types, unaccustomed to the gentrified manners and pretensions of city life, an image that they have found difficulty in shedding.

Sitting in an expensive restaurant with a group of Syrian friends I noticed that the two women next to me were whispering to one another. Enquiring as to their discussion they told me that they were amused by the appearance of the women at the opposite table. Accoarding to my friends the brash clothes, heavy make-up and blonde highlights marked the women out as Alawites; a Syrian nouveau-riche whose wealth, power and status coincided with the spectacular rise in fortune of their poster-boy, the former President Hafez al-Assad. The sentiments were not new, I had heard variations on those words many times before.

Goodbye

As I prepared to finally depart Damascus for a translation job in Beirut I spent a final few hours in my favourite internet café. The owner was there as always, but this time he was in the company of a man I had never seen before. In his early twenties the man stood up as the owner introduced me to him.

From the full enunciation of the Arabic letter “qaf” I could tell he was from Latakia, now here in Damascus to study law he told me. Asking after my time in Syria he wanted to know if I had learnt anything about the place. Did I know the capital of Syria? Inwardly groaning at his weak attempt to make me welcome (did he really think foreigners were so ignorant of the places they visited?) I told him Damascus. “No”, came the answer. I looked up from my computer screen, now paying him full attention. “No, you’re wrong, it’s not Damascus”, he continued. Piqued by his silly game, I asked him where it was. “Qardaha” he replied.

I had seen or heard this place before somewhere, but could not at that moment place it. My face must have revealed my puzzlement for he was openly grinning now. And then I realised, if I had heard it once before, then I had certainly walked past the poster of its most famous export hundreds of times.

Crossing the border into Lebanon that night I saw his picture one last time, in full military regalia Hafez al Assad stared down at me, he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Libya dispatch: Borders (1)

The Tunisia-Libya border

Today we inaugurate a new series of dispatches from Libya by our intrepid war correspondent Abu Ray, who is headed to Tripoli where bored journalists await the final battle.

Coming into Libya again, once again I was greeted by graffiti, but this time it was "God, Gadhafi, Libya and that's it." And in fact that was pretty much it for the spray painted slogans for the whole trip from the Tunisian border to Tripoli. As the Palestinian TV producer I was traveling with pointed out, it was somewhat heartening that God at least came before Gadhafi in this instance.

It was certainly a contrast to the jubiliant, riot of "Libya is free" graffiti on the eastern side that I saw four months ago when I came to cover a nationwide rebellion that has since turned into a stalemated civil war and a cautionary tale for any would be Arab democracy activists.

Across Morocco, and elsewhere in the region, ordinary people are suddenly praising the advantages of the go slow approach for fear of sinking into the bloody fighting that has convulsed Libya since March.

There was one similarity to the east, aside from the scrub filled desert landscape, and that was the soldiers at checkpoints. Weeks with the rag tag rebel irregulars had convinced me that somewhere out there was a disciplined, uniformed Libyan government force hurling artillery shells at us with deadly accuracy. Instead, at least at the dozens of checkpoints on the two hour drive to the capital, it was the same mish mash of t-shirts, fatigue pants, some camouflage, the odd beret and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov dangling from their hands.

Gadhafi's Libya is apparently not about spit and polish uniforms.

For miles along the Tunisian road leading to the border, there were young men selling large jerry cans of gasoline. Once upon a time, these were Libyans, smuggling over their super subsidized gasoline, selling it to the Tunisians.

Now gasoline has vanished from Libya and it's the Tunisians and Libyans loading up the trunks of their car and driving across the border to sell it. During the drive to Tripoli, every gas station was surrounded by earthen walls or barb wire and a long line of cars. In some cases it seemed as though maybe everyone had given up, as the gas stations were deserted and the dozens of cars covered in sand and empty of inhabitants -- like some sort of post-apocalyptic harbinger of the day the world runs out of oil.

As we sat for hours on the border, our bags getting searched and subject to the weird time warp that seems to exist at the frontiers of authoritarian countries, we watched ramshackle Tunisians cars held together by twine with backseats filled with gasoline driven through the border by cigarette puffing young men.

They were followed by the gleaming SUVs of rich Libyans taking some time out to relax at the Tunisian resorts before returning home.

The nearby Tunisian resort island of Djerba is apparently overrun by rich Libyans, residents told me as I spent a not unpleasant day there waiting to cross into Libya. One taxi driver groused how they were renting houses at outrageous rates and buying up all the food, driving up prices even more right before Ramadan. And even worse, they brought their own cars and didn't need cabs.

Meanwhile the people that needed cabs, the tourists, were just staying away. Even if Europeans had reconciled themselves to Tunisians uprising, they were now spooked by months of fighting just across the border and hotel occupancy rates were an anemic 50 percent, a far cry from last year when they were calling around the island to find rooms for their overflow numbers of guests. Probably the one city in Tunisia that isn't hurting from the drop in tourism is Sfax, the commercial capital and center of the country's business community. In fact it's these people that are probably profiting from all the food that Tunisia is sending to Libya.

It's also the home of the Libyan consulate in Tunisia and primary contact point for the hundreds of thousands of poor Libyans stuck in the country. A non descript apartment building just a few blocks from the town center, it is surrounded by barbed wire to help control the crowds of desperate Libyans that gather around it every day. It's almost a microcosm of Libya's woes as uncaring officials shout at pleading crowds through locked iron bars.

I'm not sure if anyone is ever allowed into the consulate, but on the two days I sat outside pleading for my visa, that was not the case. The windows are all barred and the doors have heavy rolling gates in front of them.

It became clear throughout the days why those gates where there as periodically someone would just completely lose it and start throwing themselves against the bars. At one point a bunch of revolutionary sympathizers showed up and tried to start a demonstrations, rattling the bars, much to the fury of people waiting outside, clustered in the fast diminishing shadows as the awful July sun climbed to its zenith.

See, the Libyan government wants to take care of its people abroad, so it pays for medical care and in some cases accommodation, but only if you are a loyal citizen and not a rebel sympathizer. So most of the crowd is clutching x-rays and medical notes begging for the funding for their operations, one man showed up with an enormous fleshy goiter overtaking much of his chin and neck and overflowing an inadequate bandage. All subject to the whim of the embassy employees.

The various officials I talked to just kept telling me my fax approving my visa had never arrived, even while my counterpart in Tripoli, desperate to escape, told me it had been sent three times.

At one point, I shoved the phone with a Tripoli-based official on the line to talk to the embassy employee. He nodded his head and said in Arabic, "yes yes, we will stamp them, it will be taken care of," then got off the line and said to me in French. "Sorry, they haven't sent the fax yet."

I suggested at one point that maybe a tip was in order to ease the process, which the embassy official thought was a capital idea as we spoke through a barred window around the corner from the shouting mobs, but “wait until I get your visas, you see I’m Tunisian, and we only take money once we’ve have results – we’re not like the Libyans.”

A gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield

 (J. Hammond)

We blogged before about the man who wanted to fight a lion. Unfortunately, he went ahead with his plan and our correspondent J. Hammond was there to witness it all.

Update: Now with images.

Al-Sayed al-Essawy claims to have dreamed of facing a lion since age thirteen. This weekend al-Essawy finally got his chance. The 25 year old resident of Mansoura proved to be one of Egypt’s most able showmen in creating international attention for his match. Despite arrests by the Egyptian government and international campaigns to stop the fight, al-Essawy faced the lion and in doing so fulfilled his dream.

Journalists and well-wishers were driven to a secret location on the edge of an open field a few hours north of Mansoura for the fight. After much hype, al-Essawy finally entered the cage in front of a hundred or so cheering onlookers. Al-Essawy bristled with melee weapons: a two pronged spear to keep the lion at bay, a machete strapped to one leg and a shield made from an old satellite TV dish. He yelled at the crowd to be quiet so he could focus on the lion. Al-Essawy’s facial expressions alternated between fear and bravado, even when taunting his feline opponent. He yelled at it, stuck his tongue out, and at one point poked at it with his trident. Al-Essawy’s provocations were all completed from a safe distance and at one point he sat on a green lawn chair brought into the cage for his comfort.

After a few minutes he approached the lion with an Israeli flag held on the end of his military fork. For a moment fear flashed across his face as he draped the lion with an Israeli flag. Then he abruptly left the ring to cheers from the crowd. He was hoisted on the shoulders of his friends, his mother kissed him, and there was a full clip of celebratory gunfire.

Al-Essawy timed the late afternoon fight to take full advantage of the setting sun which made for stunning photography. For a victory pose he climbed atop of the cage for a photo with a handmade Egyptian flag fluttering in the breeze as a backdrop. Turning to the mix of local villagers and al-Essawy’s own friends from Mansoura he asked, “Who is the lion now?”

When We Were Kings

Far from being “King of the Jungle” the lion seemed confused, dehydrated and possibly drugged as it stayed in one corner of the ring. The lion gave one feeble roar but largely ignored his opponent. The lion’s body showed open wounds above its right eye, on the tail and around the anus. An online petition to stop the fight attracted nearly 5,000 signatories and was aimed at the “President of the Arab Republic of Egypt.".  On Twitter some animal rights activists called on NATO to launch airstrikes against those in attendance. 

(J. Hammond)

Excepting the treatment of the lion, the performance was handled rather professionally. Al-Essawy was at all times assisted by several body-builders, who handed him weapons and dealt with the crowds. Despite billing himself as the world’s strongest man (other Egyptians might contest this), he must have lacked some degree of faith in his abilities. Men outside the cage armed with European made pistols stood ready to execute the lion if needed.

His mother dressed in all black was with him throughout the day. She gave interviews, looked after his collection of melee weapons and sat behind him as he prepared to enter the ring. She kissed and blessed him warmly prior to his brief Israel-bashing speech he gave before entering the ring. In interviews she talked confidently and with pride about her son “the lion fighter” and his strength. But, when the Egyptian TV cameras were elsewhere her face betrayed moments of worry. It was difficult to gauge to what extent she realized the fix was in.

Al-Essawy’s performance contradicted himself in several ways. After vowing to fight barehanded he entered the open-roofed cage heavily armed. At one point he claimed to have taken care of this lion for five months. At another juncture he said that this was only his second time seeing the lion.

In withdrawing from the battle, Essawy kept his original promise that the outcome of the fight was “up to the lion.” Mohammed, A local villager who had come to see the fight thought the result was just, “It was the best possible outcome no lion was killed and no human was injured.” Many locals complained the event was a farce and others believed the event would damage Egypt’s image and tourism prospects.

A large number of major media outlets covered the exhibition. Including, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Al-Arabiya, and Egypt’s own Awesome magazine, all of whom sent correspondents or reported on the lion story at some point. Three Egyptian TV channels also made the trip from Mansoura to Cairo. This is a bit shameful given plenty of news worthy stories were happening elsewhere in Egypt. That same day sectarian clashes broke out in Upper Egypt and the day before pro-Mubarak supporters had held a violent protest in Cairo. There are plenty of real stories about Egypt’s transition to cover in Egypt (and read about) than a gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield. 

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.

Rebel checkpoints always featured cases of bottled water, juice, piles of bread and plenty of junk food such as biscuits and packaged cupcakes that fighters can grab and throw into their pick up truck before taking off for the front.

"We never run short of food, we have good kids from Benghazi who come and bring it down to us," said Mohammed Selim, 23, as he cleaned up the empty boxes of Twinkies, cookies and sugary juice drinks piled outside a rebel checkpoint in the oil refinery town of Ras Lanouf, two weeks ago before they were driven out.

As the furthest point of their advance, the rebel forces clustered around Ras Lanouf for almost week, giving birth to the most advanced food distribution point along the front.

According to the rebels, the food comes to the checkpoints in regular deliveries, partly organized by the provisional council running the eastern cities, but also in a large part due to efforts by individuals.

Many people who don't want to actually pick up a gun and join the fighting, instead go to nearby towns, stock up on staples like bread and tuna -- as well as plenty of junk food -- and deliver them to checkpoints.

"Now we are eating Snickers bars, before we could only just look at them in the store," said Ayman Ahmed, a 23-year-old volunteer for the rebel forces who together with a group of friends took over the abandoned house of a oil refinery worker in the Ras Lanouf residential area.

"We are really experiencing freedom now," he said, in a living room filled with discarded juice boxes and wrappers from packaged sweet cakes.

Before the rebels were driven out, the center of their food network in Ras Lanouf town was the aluminum and glass guard house at the entrance to the neat houses and villas of the oil complex.

No one ever found the key, so to get in and out, those passing out the food had to climb through the windows they had forced open.

Inside the kiosk was filled with stacks of biscuits, boxes of juice and milk and two enormous stainless steel dispensers brewing tea for the troops.

"We are volunteers who came here and took on the responsibility of handing out the food while others pick up weapons and stand guard outside," said Walid Abu Hajara, a cheerful 27-year-old from Benghazi, who has been managing the makeshift kitchen for the last three days.

Together with Selim and other volunteers they made fava bean sandwiches for the fighters' breakfast and in the afternoon stuffed tuna into the loaves for lunch.

"We have a problem with the supply of bread," admitted Abu Hajara, referring to the crunchy short-baguette style Libyan bread that is the staple of any meal. "We have people that we call when we run low -- we even call members of the council."

One of his fellow workers shushed him, told him not to admit to the journalist about any shortcomings and only say that everything was fine.

Less than half an hour later, though, the bread appears and fighters can be seen pocketing several loaves each, along with wedges of processed cheese.

With the lack of logistical organization of the rebels' regular armed forces and the flood of volunteers to the front, this largely charitable food drive is vital to keeping rebel fighters functioning.

There are also little in the way of grocery stores in the remote towns strung along the desert coastal road of Libya's barren center.

To a large extent, the informal food network grew out of the flood of charitable endeavors that sprang out of the euphoria of the Feb. 17 uprising against Qadhafi.

Longstanding eastern Libyan traditions of hospitality and generosity have blossomed with the successful throwing off of central government control and everywhere people are handing out food.

Outside Benghazi's courthouse, where day and night there is some sort of gathering commemorating the demonstrations that faced down the police more than a month ago, food is regularly provided.

Elsewhere in the city, kitchens prepare a steady supply of meals for the poor and needy.

At a gas station on the road to the front, a man handed out packets of dates stamped "a gift from Jalo for the Feb. 17 revolution," referring to desert town far to the south.

At another stop, a local patiently gives out prepared sacks of food to passing motorists, even journalists, containing tuna sandwiches, an apple and banana and a twinkie.

"We eat whenever people bring us food or we go to the checkpoints," said Ali Youssef, a tall thin 22-year-old fighter who's been living on the front for weeks. "The food is, well, war food, but it's okay," he said with tentative smile.  

His favorite dish is a Libyan pasta and tomato sauce specialty, and surprisingly hot cooked meals are not a rarity for most soldiers. Many say they eat chicken or lamb at least once day, once again thanks to local efforts.

At the Brega Hospital, where doctors wait for the latest dead and wounded from the fighting at Ras Lanouf, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west on the coastal road, a young man in a scout uniform hands out meals.

The foil boxes contain rice and a fairly substantial piece of beef supplemented with more Libyan loaves.

"My mother and my aunts, all of us worked on it together and we distribute it to the hospital, to the revolutionaries and others," said Essam al-Hamali, as he handed out the meals to waiting doctors in blue scrubs.

He said today he and his family and fellow scouts put together about 700 meals.

Other days, fighters say people just show up with aluminum pots filled with rice or pasta topped with meat or chicken.

For Muftah Momin, a young fighter sharing the abandoned oil workers house with his friend Ahmed, it's not the hot meals, however, that really stand out.

"You get the best honey here," he said, offering of spoonful of it. "This is the fuel of the revolution, provided by the council." 

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.  

What SXSW was about for me

SXSW is largely about issues related to the technologies and content that deliver the internet, especially emerging new services, which can often pick up VC funding there or simply publicize themselves. But it's more than just a trade show, it's also a celebration of technology and the way it impacts humans and empowers them. Even if it's a little disconcerting to see so many people walking around in their hip T-shirts, arm out in front them, elbow bent, fingers rapidly shooting off messages on their iPhones, Androids and Blackberries: perhaps technology is not so liberating, although I'm hardly one to talk. It was great to attend some of the more techie talks there, notably seeing the great web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman in person.

I also attended a great panel with Global Voices Middle East contributor Jillian York and CPJ internet advocacy coordinator Danny O'Brien, among others, on human rights and the web. The session ended up being dominated by an argument with another panelist, Ebele Okobi-Harris, who heads Yahoo's Business and Human Rights Department. I and others took her to task on what happened to Flickr's decision to take off pictures of Egyptian State Security officers that Hossam el-Hamalawy had put up after the raid on SS HQ in Cairo. Okobi-Harris indicated that the issue might have been handled differently had she been consulted, and that the pictures were flagged by other Flickr users and in breach of Flickr's policy that you have to post your own pictures. I found her argument thoroughly unconvincing (plenty of Flickr users post pictures that are not theirs, and besides Hossam never claimed that these were and the issue at stake was not ownership or copyright but public interest) and told her so, but it looks like Flickr won't budge. I was also taken aback that she basically recommended not to use Flickr for these things (even though we pay for the service) — and Hossam is now using Picasa to host those pics. Not good business, Flickr.

That's me on the left end.

My own panel has some great personalities: Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian (the editor, Alan Rusbridger, was supposed to come but had to handle the capture and subsequent release of Ghaith Abul Ahad in Libya), who was the paper's key negotiator with Julian Assange before they ended their relationship; Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair, who profiled Assange; Steven Engelberg of Pro Publica, the great transparency and investigative journalism outfit; and Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, the UK diplomat who famously resigned in 2004 over Iraq. The talk, which you can listen to here, took on a lot of issues ranging from journalism's relationship with Wikileaks, whether Assange considers himself a journalist, what Wikileaks means for traditional diplomacy and whether (as Ross notably insisted) diplomacy needs to be more transparent and accountable. I weighed in on the Middle East angle, from what impact Wikileaks may have had on the Arab uprisings to the Arab media's treatment of the issues.

Now for the fun part

Austin is an island of blue in Texas' sea of red: it's a hip, cosmopolitan liberal college town with great Mexican food and all kinds of fusion cuisine, microbrews and other accoutrements of cosmopolitan urban living, and hick country is just outside and the very values-centered TV show Friday Night Lights is filmed just outside. 

I had only time for two notable dinners: one in which I shared an unbelievably large and tasty steak with Andy Carvin, who was the it thing of SXSW as far as the media types was concerned for his gargantuan effort at tweeting the Arab uprisings. What Carvin did was not just RT information, but fact-check it and crowd-source it. It is perhaps the best model seen so far to use Twitter as a journalistic tool, despite its natural tendency to be used to spread unconfirmed reports and even disinformation.

I also spent a night drinking and eating Austin's specialty trailer food with a great crowd of Arabist readers — all super-interesting, talented people (and some amazing Arabists, in the linguistic sense, among them). It's an honor to have such a smart readership, and it made me realize that I should meet with readers more often. The feedback I get on the site is invaluable.

And some other stuff

One of the big issues being discussed at SXSW was the future of the mainstream media, notably newspapers. In part this was because the film festival featured the excellent documentary on the NYT by Andrew Rossi, Page One, which follows life at the paper’s Media section (notably that of the very oddball journalist David Carr, a lovable curmudgeon) as it tracks the fall of several American newspapers, implements its own staff cuts and wonders whether the age of print is over.

I know I criticize the NYT a lot on this blog, mostly for its coverage of Israel/Palestine, but this movie really makes you feel a tremendous amount of sympathy and respect for what newspapers like the NYT do. It’s true that it produces much great content (as well, as, unfortunately, Thomas Friedman columns) that is, for the most part, reliable. Where the NYT often fails is on areas that touch on the American establishment: foreign policy issues (Judy Miller and Iraq, etc.) and Israel, where the Jewish establishment (which the NYT is in some respects part of) imposes its skewed vision of events even as the rest of the paper claims to trumpet relatively liberal moral values. But all this is besides the point: Page One really makes you think about what might happen when there’s less NYTs out there and more Gawkers. I know what I’d rather read.

Speaking of which, this month the NYT is finally introducing its paywall system. I don’t like how their model makes a difference between tablet and smartphone subscriptions (so if like me you have an iPhone and an iPad you have to pay $35 a month rather than $15 or $20 respectively) and am puzzled (if pleased) that they are making stories linked to by blogs available for free — it incentivizes blogger to link to them, as opposed to other publications behind full paywalls which readers find annoying when you to them on Twitter or blog posts. I really don’t see how people expect to get quality news reporting without paying for it. My problem is more than with a limited budget, I have to ask myself: WSJ, FT, or NYT? Frankly I prefer the first two in general. But I’m the type of person who generally finds the business press (and television news channel) much more useful, even though I’m not that interested in business per se.

The other movie I saw, which was pretty good, was Dragonslayer, on skateboard counterculture in California. A very endearing film. It won two prizes at the festival.

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.

At the time of writing, they are still probably 200 kilometers from Benghazi and don’t really have the forces for any kind of protracted siege of a major metropolis but the momentum now feels like it’s on the government side and in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, closer to the front, tensions are high. They are blaming the journalists they once welcomed for somehow giving them away and some are digging out their old Qadhafi pictures and giving them a polish.

“It is just like the Spanish Civil War,” said Raoul, a Spanish TV journalist, “like Homage to Catalonia.” Benghazi in this scenario becomes civil war Barcelona, with an exuberant explosion of revolutionary thinking and fervor that is eventually crushed under the boot of the fascist armies after it turns out enthusiasm doesn’t beat out lots of equipment on the front.

I had a lot of respect for Raoul, he tended to have a good take on the situation, and besides he was captured and beaten up by Russian Special Forces in Georgia, which has to count for something.

It’s not a bad parallel for what the front was like either. There were maybe 1,500 to 2,000 rebel forces out on the field by some wildly unsubstantiated estimates we made, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had even less, fighting out of Qadhafi’s home town of Sirte in the middle of the country.

What they lacked in numbers, though, they made up in gear and on March 6, when the triumphant rebel forces hit the tiny coastal town of Bin Jawwad they were greeted with a curtain of tank shells and rockets. Every time their mad rushes on pickup trucks with heavy machine guns bolted on the back were stopped cold by a steady thump of high explosives.

Afterwards, talking with rebels about their experiences, it was always about the hail of “Jerads”, the local word for Grad rockets, also known as Katyushas, though after a while I had the feeling there was a sinister French fellow named Gerard who was messing everything up for them.

“We just don’t have the means,” said one young recruit, kitted out in mismatched camouflage as he cleaned the desert sands out of his puny Kalashnikov after being driven back hundreds of kilometers from Bin Jawwad.

After Bin Jawwad, the war just became a gradual slog backwards as government forces moved forward slowly but inexorably behind a wall of rockets, each time driving the rag tag rebels army further back.

Talking to the volunteers and the occasional member of the defected military fighting on the rebel side, there was always talk of rebels regrouping and waiting for the heavy weapons to come up from Benghazi.

In some ways, the wait was understandable, the rebel army never expected to start pushing west against Qadhafi’s forces, they had to sit down and figure out what tanks they had, who could drive them, and what ranks meant in the new army _ and for that matter, how they were going to feed everybody.

But the eager volunteers didn’t give them time. Everyone grabbed a Kalashnikov and a beret, wrapped a keffiyeh around their neck and rushed off to the front in a pickup truck. And for a while it worked, until it didn’t.

A few heavy rocket launchers made their way from the rebel side to the front, but apparently not enough to counteract the government barrages and some journalists even saw a few tanks fighting for the revolution. They also saw a couple crash into each other.

Nothing seemed to make a difference and as the government forces moved forward a few dozen kilometers every day, the volunteers disappeared leaving just a few units of the defected military to hold the line.

I spent days at the front, different little towns that in normal times wouldn’t have been more than a passing blur in a fast moving desert car, but now represented hard won gains or unattainable goals.

At Ras Lanouf, an oil refinery town, a kind of rebel village evolved, with people sleeping outside by their trucks at the checkpoint or “liberating” the housing of evacuated foreign oil workers, surviving on a diet of tuna sandwiches, twinkies and biscuits brought up from Benghazi for the fighters.

Somehow, one of the most difficult logistical problems of any army, feeding its men, seemed to work here on a system of volunteers who just bought food, threw it into a pickup truck and dropped it off at rebel checkpoints where it was given out.

Disconcertingly, a lot of it seemed to be junk food, especially those awful cream wafer things and sugary juice boxes, but occasionally apples and bananas made an appearance and of course lots of dates.

Hanging out at the checkpoints on a sunny day was almost fun, despite the occasional burst of fire from an overexcited teenager manning a bulky 14.5mm anti aircraft gun. Except for the air strikes.

I think it will be a while before I feel comfortable with the distant sound of an airplane again. You would hear the familiar buzz of a high flying aircraft and everyone would panic, diving for their cars, opening up with their machine guns, occasionally stupidly firing noisy short range rocket propelled grenades pointlessly into the sky. 

The actual aircraft was always a little ahead of the noise, so it was hard to see them and sometimes they would just circle, other time the noise from the unseen plane would get louder and louder and suddenly a massive plume of dust and sand would erupt in the distance and sometimes closer by.

The airstrikes never really did anything, they never actually seemed to hit an important target and weren’t nearly as effective as those awful rockets and artillery shells but they were scary in their randomness and all the rebels kept asking me where the no fly zone was. Where was Obama? How the hell should I know, I’m here running around like a chicken with its head cut off with the rest of you.

Up from Ras Lanouf was the front, which in the final days was a distant rumbling thing with far plumes of smoke as the two sides traded rockets. One day they hit the oil storage facilities at the Sidra oil terminal and the sky filled with pitch black smoke sparked with rolling fireballs.

Several times those days, we would watch from far away, trying to figure out what was going on a shall would whizz crash into the side of the road not a few dozen meters from us. Once you hear or see a shell crash you know you survived, But it’s hard to feel all that comforted.

It all just felt so random, some days the rockets fell far away, other days nearby. 

The photographers were always crazy. I remember walking down a hill once following a group of photographers into a valley of death and chaos marked by oil fires and plumes of distant explosions as dusk neared. It was a nightmare scene but they kept walking, pausing only when they saw two rebel fighters taking a break to pray in the desert.

A half dozen photographers then piled on them, shooting two men in keffiyehs praying with their guns besides them against a backdrop of a burning sky. Moving image, no doubt.

It was usually impossible to find anyone in charge at the front, just kids with guns and a lot of bile for Qadhafi, but occasionally a grizzled officer would make an appearance with heartening words about the imminent arrival of heavy weapons, and some private comments about how difficult it was to instill any sense of discipline or order in the chaotic forces.

The rebel forces seemed to move as an inchoate mob of group think, and it just wasn’t enough. So every day, despite talk of counterattacks and secret weapons, the front moved back day by day, until Ras Lanouf fell and then Brega.

“It is back and forth, that is a desert war,” said Abdel Fatah Younes, the sketchy former interior minister who switched sides at the beginning of the uprising and later became the rebel defense minister. Except that it just seemed to be going back.

I don’t think Qadhafi’s forces will be rolling into Benghazi any time soon, but if things keep going the way they are now, they will eventually regroup sufficiently and take back the east. And then I don’t know what will happen to all those people who for a month enjoyed a Libyan spring, spray painting satiric pictures of Qadhafi on the walls of buildings, waving the old monarchy flag and telling everyone how much of a murderous killer he was.

How do you go back to the silence, lies and mistrustful shiftiness of the last 40 years after that without going utterly mad?

Facing death in Libya

Our sometime correspondent Abu Ray is in 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.

We settled into the car, anticipating a sleepy two hour car ride back when we noticed that the old fellow we had hired for the day kept veering into the oncoming headlights. We offered to drive, he said no he was fine... then abruptly pulled over and said he'd rather we drive. Turns out he can't see at night.

So I got behind the wheel, one of my rare moments driving since I don't own a car in Egypt, and embarked on a white knuckle drive along winding mountain roads with no markings and a filthy windshield admirably lit up by everyone's oncoming hi beams.

The Spanish journalist I'd been traveling with laughed from the backseat where he was busy writing his article on a laptop, "hey, looks like you're finally facing death in Libya."

Because the thing was, when we crossed the border into revolutionary Libya we had no idea what to expect, certainly not enthusiastic border guards wearing civilian clothes asking for their pictures to be taken.

We were some of the first journalists to cross the border and we were a novelty, and a sudden outlet to the rest of the world. They had just thrown off a suffocating blanket of silence of the past forty years and wanted to talk about it.

In Tobruk I was led by the hand, here the dreaded revolutionary committees collected information about people, here the people were tortured by the police, here Qadhafi hung people in the main square every night one Ramadna in the 80s. And here they fought the police and liberated their town.

The generosity was incredible, throughout this trip, people have been constantly handing out crackers, wafers, juice boxes or sandwiches to us. In Benghazi there are several charity operations just churning food for whoever wants it, especially in the courthouse square that has become the symbol of the revolution.

And then there are the dead. The martyrs. We hear about them in every town. Twelve martyrs died here, cut apart by the heavy caliber bullets of Qadhafi's mercenaries. Here five died assaulting the police station. "Have you seen the videos of the dead bodies? of the dead mercenaries?"

Twinned with the martyrs in all these stories are the dreaded mercenaries. Qadhafi did recruit Africans and darker Libyans from the south into a pan-Islamic brigade once and he has most likely used the Chadian and Darfurian rebels he funds to support his rule -- but certainly not all the people firing on civilians are "black mercenaries" many or most likely his Libyan soldiers.

But rather than confront the specter of Libyan on Libyan violence, the mercenaries have become the bugbear-scapegoat of this whole struggle. Even if Libyan soldiers were involved, there was inevitably a fearsome black mercenary holding a gun to the back of his head.

The result has been devastating for the vast numbers of African migrants working in Libya, attracted by an oil economy with a neverending hunger for foreign workers. In a miserable series of sheds on the cold windswept Benghazi port huddle hundreds of Africans, Bangladeshis and others from countries too poor to evacuate them.

Across the port water they watch Greek and Turkish cruise ships and British destroyers come pick up Europeans, Americans, Australians and even Vietnamese and Chinese workers while they stay. Cold, rained on, and terrified of going back into town where they're afraid of being accused of being mercenaries.

On the top floor of the Benghazi Courthouse, a vibrant bubbling cauldron of vigorous new politics and enthusiastic volunteers are a pair of grim barred cells holding African migrant workers and black Libyans accused of being mercenaries who maintain they were just caught up in frenzied sweeps.

Outside, three effigies labeled mercenaries were hung from the lamposts.

The city is covered in grafitti, most of it about bringing down Qadhafi, proclaiming Libya free aqnd generally enjoying a riotious freedom where for so long absolutely nothing was allowed. Inside a burnt out building next to the courthouse that must have housed something related to the old regime, young activists paint poster after poster lampooning Qadhafi and denouncing his regime.

The themes are remarkably similar each time, but they do not seem to tire reproducing his unforgettable visage endlessly, perhaps to make up for all the ones they tore down around the town.

In a way, like the Egyptian revolution (which is looking increasingly unrevolutionary) I missed the real conflict. The last of the fighting had ended by early Monday, and I rolled into town on Wednesday, they didn't even have any widespread looting and exuberant late night gunfire aside, it's been a remarkably calm city.

Instead I heard the stories of the titanic battles against the army barracks in the center of town surrounded by a wall that had been breached by bulldozers, erratically driven tanks and finally a car bomb that shattered the gates.

And then on Wednesday, I met martyrs of my own. After more than a week of concentrating on towns close to Tripoli, Qadhafi sent forces against the oil installations in rebel hands just a few hundred kilometers from Benghazi. 

Little had been done to defend them, with the rebel army made up of remants of defected units largely trying to figure out what guns it had and where and who was really in charge.

Instead it was the local militias that challenged the couple of hundred government forces that took over the Brega oil terminal and nearby university. Following the news of early morning clashes, we drove the two and half hours down there, not expecting much, only to stumble on the sounds of heavy machine guns and mortars exploding in the air.

Goading forward our reluctant driver, we drove on a coastal road along a beautiful beach leading to the oil terminal where militia men were walking along with their Kalashnikovs, some with just big knives, others carrying single coke bottles filled with gasoline with a card board wick.

We got out of the car and walked with them, until they turned off the road, and started crossing the sand dunes towards the distant sounds of battle, which occasionally came uncomfortably close with the odd mortar burst that sent me digging into the sand, while trying to send text messages back to the office, about what was going on.

Then would come the hysterical shout of "sahrawi!!", meaning desert, as in desert vehicle, and someone would send their four wheel drive pickup truck on to the dunes to pick up the wounded. After the black smoke of mortar rounded appeared perilously close, we decided to follow the wounded back to the hospital.

The local hospital was a simple affair and it was clear the doctors and nurses were a little overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of the groaning bloodsoaked wounded.

The weird thing is that once a bullet wound has been cleaned off, say on a corpse, it's often a tiny little hole, that somehow so much blood leaks out of. 

And then a pick up truck pulled up and inside were just bodies and the crowd of young men outside went hysterical, crowding around, shouting God is great, and there is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of god. Someone started firing their gun in the air. 

Weirdly the nurses later started chanting about martyrs, and maybe it was how you cope with death.

Dead people, as it turns out, look a lot like they do in the movies except for they're a lot dirtier, in this case covered with blood and sand because they died on the beach. The next day, I saw them again, about ten of them, in the morgue, some cleaned up, a lot with blood  and wounds still all over them, where they await the relatives to claim them before they are buried.

There was something truly disturbing about seeing a form inside a metal drawer with no lights on inside. Didn't seem right. How can you breathe in there?

So as it turns out, the ragged militia repulsed the government forces, with the help of reinforcements from Benghazi and some heavier weapons than makeshift molotov cocktails. That evening everyone who hadn't fired a gun rolled around town in pickup trucks shooting into the air, truly deafening, and a bit scary. What goes up, must come down. Luckily not near us that time.

Uprisings are sweeping the Middle East, but Libya's long time leader is not going without a fight. He does seem to have united much of the country against him, but he can still hold together some kind of fighting force to keep the capital and a number of other towns.

Libya's revolution will not be the mostly peaceful mass uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt and even Bahrain, and perhaps Yemen. It's going to be a fight. Qadhafi will not go easily unless the security forces he's paying so well suddenly turn on him. For now, neither side can really advance from their territory and it all depends on further uprisings, something he is savagely putting down.

The result may be the stalemate of a divided nation. Either way, it looks like there will be a lot more martyrs to this revolution, but on a positive note, at least in the east, chaos has not resulted and it's been a remarkably colorful ride..

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. 

One of the most fascinating things was seeing and hearing all the political conversations everywhere. Someone told me a few nights ago: "We used to just talk about soccer. Now we talk politics" and it's true. I stood on a corner with a few people I know and in the span of 45 minutes random people approached us and discussed: the reports of arrests and disappearances; whether beltagiya should be held responsible or whether they are just the product of oppression; whether change needs to come from the bottom or the top. At one point someone took issue with my foreign appearance and my notebook and asked the woman I was talking to what she was telling me and if she was Egyptian--this degenerated into mutual suspicion and an argument that was then mediated by other by-standers. Everyone in the square is a little paranoid about informers, agents provocateurs and the media's portrayal of events--but these struck me mostly as the to-be-expected jitters surrounding the opening of an entirely new, and very promising, national debate. Everyone can say anything they want, today, in Midan Tahrir and to a great extent across the country, and this is a huge, confusing adjustment. Someone told me an argument between pro- and anti-Mubarak people had broken out on the bus he'd ridden into town--he'd finally told the ones supporting the president: "Do you think we would have ever had this conversation two weeks ago?"

Someone else I interviewed today told me: "The entire Egyptian political elite owes an apology to the people"--for being incapable of imagining that they could do what they've done in the last two weeks (I would widen that observation to the world press and commentariat). That said, I have yet to meet anyone--among the activists, among the participants--who claims they saw this coming. 

 

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.

 

Hulking sand colored M1 tanks squatted menacingly on the nighttime roads from the airport and everywhere makeshift barriers blocked off the neighborhoods of what had once been an open city.

 

At 3am airport was almost deserted and instead of the usual mob of taxi drivers clamoring for my business, I was lucky to find a young cabbie pulling through the empty parking lot. He agreed to take me (Helen and Ray would enjoy Bali for a while longer) back to my distant Nile-side neighborhood of Garden City and we embarked on an odyssey that would last till dawn and was ultimately unsuccessful.

 

Curfew had closed the main roads forcing us to take the sidestreets through the nearby district of Heliopolis and into a maze of impromptu checkpoints, just like in Baghdad when people closed the roads to their neighborhoods to stop nighttime marauders during the dark years of sectarian infighting.

 

Men with sticks and sometimes handguns warming themselves by fires would surround the car, demanding ids and firing questions to know where we were coming from and what was planned.

 

At first I took it in stride until the checkpoints were coming every few minutes, often within sight of each other in a triumph of paranoia and redundancy.

 

It hadn’t helped that the government, in an frantic effort to displace the blame for the most obvious culprit for the whole mess, went on the air to warn against foreign agent provocateurs.

 

It’s an odd strategy for a country that sets so much store by its lucrative tourist industry, but it seemed to have worked and so many of those self appointed guardians against chaos seemed convinced that foreigners were behind the problems in their country, rather than, say, a sclerotic regime finally falling apart.

 

At one of the earlier checkpoints they insisted on taking apart my bags provoking squawks of outrage from me as I passionately expounded on my deep Egyptian roots. They apologized, but I was soon to find that that behavior was more the norm than the exception.

 

We finally ran into an army checkpoint and there an officer instructed his man to painstakingly sift through my belongings, with items of interest deposited on a plastic lawn chair in front of him.

 

Aside from obvious problem objects like my camera and sundry accessories, they singled out for further inspection: my flashlight, Ray’s bendable dinosaur, and my underarm deodorant. One soldier did spend an inordinate amount of time staring at Ray’s little yellow toy Volkswagen beetle, but it was eventually allowed through.

 

The underarm poked bafflement at least two checkpoints, and lacking the language on this one, I had to pantomime what it was used for.

 

“Can you buy this in Egypt,” asked one soldier in wonder. “Of course," growled a plainsclothes iofficer who had been supervising the search, “every big supermarket sells them.”

 

In the end, though, it was a particularly self important civilian checkpoint that sank our journey. The fat fellow not only dragged us back to one of the military checkpoints we’d already passed and made them re-search all the belongings, but then had the gall to say he would still not let us pass until the curfew ended at dawn, still an hour away.

 

Luckily that particular checkpoint was a near a metro station and I was allowed to catch the next passing train. Weirdly, my taxi was then allowed to leave.

 

During the 10 minute walk home from my destination metro station, I had to pass through three more impromptu checkpoints, including one just minutes from my apartment where they insisted on another baggage search, prompting a full scale rage attack on my part.

 

Cairo, a city where you could once wander through any neighborhood at any time with total impunity was now ruined, wracked by fear and suspicion.

 

We had become news. It certainly feels different when the focus of the world’s attention is your backyard. All those other reporters flying in where just covering another conflict zone, but for the local corps of journalists, though, this story was largely about the disintegration of where we lived.

 

Which come to think of it is how our Iraqi colleagues have probably felt for years.

 

A few hours after making it home, I went out into Tahrir Square, the center of the world’s attention for the past week and three blocks from my house. It was ringed with tanks but inside was actually quite lovely. It was almost as though all the brotherhood and camaraderie that had been leached out of the rest of the city had been concentrated into one place.

 

They were conscientious about security, not surprising considering the many attacks by pro-regime thugs, but apologized after the pat downs and we wished each other good luck. Everyone wanted to talk about why they were there and the years of frustration that had brought them to lay siege to the center of the city with this act of occupying defiance.

 

Occasional suspicions were easy to disarm with a few words and exchange of smiles and few conversations ended with bad feelings.

 

And ringing the borders of the square were makeshift barriers made of burned cars, aluminum siding and random bits of junk. Beyond lay a no-man’s land of stones and roving mobs of self-appointed vigilantes and a city I no longer knew.

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. 

First, the idea that the government could be replaced by a "committee of wise men" that would essentially act as a constitutional assembly of sorts, creating the legal environment in which a government might be formed and fair elections might be held: 

Jan 24 (Reuters) - Tunisian politicians are negotiating the creation of a committee of "wise men" to replace the interim government and "protect the revolution", political sources said on Monday.

They said the committee could include respected opposition politician Ahmed Mestiri.

Mestiri is a respected lawyer and former Bourguibist who played a key role in the history of post-independence Tunisia but later fell out of favor with the regime (Wikipedia has a decent entry.) But he's 85, and the other names floating about are also in their 80s and even 90s. This would then be a committee of wise men to set the outline of the new regime, not run day-to-day affairs. So who would run those? I've heard people suggest that the entire government could be replaced by a handful of technocrats who keep things running, but I'm not so sure.

Second, the fact that Rachid Ammar made a speech to the hundreds of protestors who had come from the center of the country to protest against the interim government. 

Jan 24 (Reuters) - The Tunisian army general who refused to back president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali's crackdown on protesters warned on Monday that a political vacuum could bring back dictatorship and vowed to protect the revolution.

"Our revolution is your revolution. The revolution of the youth could be lost and could be exploited by those who call for a vacuum," General Rashid Ammar told crowds outside the prime minister's office, where protesters have demanded the fall of the interim government. "The army will protect the revolution."

Ammar's decision to withdraw support from Ben Ali is widely regarded as a turning point that eventually forced him to leave the country on Jan. 14 after weeks of popular protests.

This sends the message that a) no one in the interim government has the credibility to take charge of this kind of communication and b) that Ammar is the current strongman, the only person with credibility to address and calm angry crowds. It's a short hop from that to the idea that he should be the head of the transitional government, although at least for appearances' sake it might be better to remain in the background. But it remains a real possibility, considering that today he appears as the only person with the credibility to block criticism — there simply is no other politician that would have the same instant authority, since he is seen as the man who deposed Ben Ali.

Things might move very fast from here. There's a good chance Ghannouchi will no longer be PM tomorrow (with perhaps no immediate clarity on who else will remain), particularly since he's been clumsy with his communication, notably his mention last week that he had spoken to Ben Ali on the phone, which really freaked out a lot of people.

There are other questions raised today. I mentioned earlier the teachers' strike, which is a way for the UGTT (trade union) to flex its muscles. You've also had strikes elsewhere — in big retail notably — that are making industrialists nervous. You are seeing the beginning of demands for wage increases (which traditionally have been negotiated every three years in a government-brokered process). For now, with the absence of Islamists from the scene and much of the RCD in hiding, trade unionists are emerging as the most organized political force, with a national network to rely on with ties to various leftist parties (notably the banned PCOT, or communists). The national leadership of the UGTT is said to have been for decades in bed with the RCD, and fairly quietist. But the regional leadership and rank-and-file is a different mix of people, and they are putting pressure on the leadership — which is the rational explanation for why UGTT leaders joined the interim government and the next day left it. The UGTT has jumped into the political vacuum and weakness of the legal opposition, but it's not really structured to be a political party and was for a long time a para-statal network. This ambiguity makes some uncomfortable.

One possibility is that Ammar is going ahead of UGTT / popular expectations by taking up the role of defender of the revolution — thus responding to one of the main fears of the opposition and at least part of the UGTT, which is that the RCD will crawl back in place. I'm not sure what the link is right now, but I am putting today's speech and the revolutionary rhetoric alongside last night's arrest of Hannibal TV director Larbi Nasra (who has apparently now been released) and the bizarre charges against him — that he was conspiring against the revolution and committed "high treason." Remember that no one, not even Ben Ali or his relatives currently under house arrests, have been charged with treason or anything else. Of course that could simply be a big gaffe by Najib Chebbi, the minister who mentioned the high treason charges. The current government, again, really seems to have a PR problem — the wisest one so far, indeed, appears to be Slim Amamou whose Twitter feed satisfies a natural curiosity but has been gaffe-free (most probably he's not in the loop.)

The other significant news today is a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman to Tunis. I'll write more about this later, but I think the US has played a major role in the events of the last two weeks — and US involvement at this senior level now suggests Washington is helping broker this transition, and will be a key player in it for some time to come. Yesterday Clinton yet again reiterated US support for free elections:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi yesterday to express continued support for the people of Tunisia in their path to a more democratic society. Secretary Clinton conveyed that the United States is encouraged by indications that the Interim Government is trying to be inclusive and ensure that the many segments of Tunisian society will have a voice.

The United States supports this effort, and the Secretary noted the Prime Minister's call for open, free, and credible elections in six months. She also commended the Interim Government's first, but significant steps to begin to investigate corruption and past abuses, and to work toward political reform. Specifically, the Secretary noted the government's establishment of three investigatory working committees to deal with these issues. Finally, the Secretary reiterated that the United States stands ready to assist the Tunisian people to meet the challenges ahead, and assured the Prime Minister that the United States will stand with them as they chart a new course for their country.

I have no privileged information, but it the US right now have a clear priority: that stability is maintained, and that to ensure this at this moment, the transition has to combine the right mix of legitimacy and order to satisfy the Tunisian people's demands. Of course other factors play against this, notably concerns about longer term economic policy. Those questions may play out later, and for now there's a need to outflank the main political agitator on the scene right now, which appears to be the far left and the trade unionists.

I'll leave it at that for now. Do read Christopher Alexander's FP piece today which provides good background. I'm reading his book right now and am finding it very informative.

This trip to Tunisia is self-financed. Please help me write more dispatches like this one by donating what you can — anything helps —  to keep Arabist going. And a big thanks to those who've already contributed!

 

 

 

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).

Tunisians are not happy with their political class. They are conscious that these people did not topple Ben Ali and that many of them were latecomers to the uprising. Ordinary people I speak to keep on repeating that this was a revolution of the young, and yes they do stress the importance of Facebook. In fact there seems to be a kind of division of labor: older people tell me that they are working overtime to allow younger people, who led this movement, be full-time activists. They feel too old to take part in the demonstrations, but want to support the movement by enabling their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, to keep pressure on the government.

There is a a tremendous awareness that the pressure must be kept on the government. Former regime figures of all levels are laying low, "hiding in their houses" as people tell me, and they want to keep the transitional government honest. An interesting development this morning is that the primary and secondary public schools have reopened, and the national union of teachers is striking for the removal of the RCDist ministers (private schools are reopening normally). Teachers have showed up to school to explain to parents their decision — obviously for many working parents this could be very inconvenient. This could be a big debate and I think the government will dispatch ministers from the legal opposition to negotiate with the teachers — although, remarkably, they don't seem to have demands relating to their job (higher pay and benefits, etc.) and their strike is strictly political. 

The UGTT, a federation of trade unions, is seemingly playing a key role here. Many are puzzled that the UGTT first joined the government and then left it — why did it join it in the first place if it didn't like the presence of the RCDists? The explanation appears to be splits within the UGTT, and with the refusenik faction eventually convincing or dominating the faction in favor of participation. It could also be a gambit from greater representation on the transitional government. It does reflect a certain lack of strategy, a political immaturity that is telling of the political vacuum that existed under Ben Ali: people simply don't have that much experience in these situations or at political brinksmanship. Some feel the UGTT is trying to claim credit for the uprising (where it did play, later on, a significant role). But I think there will be tremendous resistance to that, and a key question today in Tunisia is who wields moral and political authority. It's certainly not the transitional government, and there is no politician who can claim that. It will all be decided in the next few weeks. 

In the meantime, the political factions are trying to rebuild themselves and expand their bases. Yesterday morning I went to a political rally by Ettajdid, a political party composed of former Marxists and social-democrats. The conference hall at a neighborhood cultural center had a capacity of about 600, there must have been closer to 1000 people in the room, though. A feeling that you got there, like elsewhere, was that there is a great level of excitement about what's happened and a repoliticization of people. In fact I imagine that Tunisians today must be the most politicized people in the world — as a sales lady in mobile phone store told me, "we're a country of 10 million politicians now." There's a lesson to learn for the very depoliticized people of Western democracies too here.

Ettajdid's leader is Ahmed Brahim, the minister of higher education in the transitional government, and he kept on insisting in his rousing speech that Tunisians' task was to keep the new government honest and "safeguard democracy". This theme comes up again and again: the gains of the last week are still fragile, there is fear that they could be reversible, and that things must move quickly to change the laws and parts of the constitution that enabled the regime to keep such a strong hold over the population. Among Ettajdid's crowd there are also other concerns: that Tunisia's character remain secular, that advances for women's rights should be maintained and strengthened, and that the new order should be social-democratic. The concern for Ettajdid is of course that a new political force (from the remnants of the RCD, from the trade unions, from Islamists or exile groups) could marginalize them in the new political landscape, especially that their leftist ideas are not that uncommon (although there is a hard core of older members who are significantly more to the left than younger members, a split I think you see in many parties). 

I should get going now, but wanted to leave you with this slideshow of pictures taken in central Tunis of the graffiti of Kamal Chabboune, a lawyer and activist with whom I spent part of the day on Saturday. Chabboune — a secularist center-leftist — has been behind a lot of the graffiti seen in this part of town, and on that day supported the protest by police officers. I loved the graffiti he did that said "the people have liberated the police" — which was echoed by police officers who, in tears, apologized to the Tunisian people and explained that they had also been oppressed by the regime, which ran an internal service in the police force that kept checks on officers. What to do with the police after the fall of a police state will be a huge part of the Tunisian story for years to come, an important element of the national reconciliation that should be coming.

 

Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by Iraq.ir.

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.

Our two cars were stopped at a checkpoint outside Sadr City, the 
officer there claimed our weapons permits weren’t in order and we had 
to turn back, while meanwhile dozens of other cars sailed right through.

I later was told that the checkpoints can be a bit nasty to people 
escorted by security companies and riding in armored cars – like we 
were – which unfortunately have their own orange license plates.

It’s mostly a hangover from the bad old Blackwater days and some well 
justified animosity towards private security contractors. Apparently 
it helped not to ride in the armored cars, the “soft cars” tended to 
get pulled over less often.

I was little less tolerant of the whole checkpoint phenomenon after 
heading down to Najaf about a week later. The roads through the south 
are just rotten with checkpoints. Most of the time they just wave you 
through, but entering a major city can be a bit of problem.

We’d called ahead to Najaf and our names were supposed to be on a list 
at the checkpoint, butof course they weren’t. Once they figured we 
had weapons, we were pulled over and there was a great deal of paper 
checking, calls on cell phones and earnest discussions with the police.

Meanwhile, trucks piled high with suspicious boxes, taxis crammed with 
people and microbuses carrying coffins sailed right through unchecked.

“They always check the wrong people, who knows what that guy is 
carrying,” said one of the Iraqis with me. You always see lots of 
coffins on the way to Najaf, it’s where the big cemetery is.

We eventually made it through, and a few hours later found out that 
the checkpoints had missed something. Something huge.

The final toll for the day was 119 in 10 cities across the country, 
but most of the dead were in two southern cities: Basra, in the 
deepest south near Kuwait where bombs killed 30. And in Hillah, where 
a diabolically sequence of blasts killed 50.

Hillah. I’d been there last week to check out the nearby ruins of 
Babylon. Actually, I’d just been there two hours earlier, it was on 
the way to Najaf. It was also on the way home.

To get inside Hillah or drive the hundreds of kilometers down to 
Basra, the bombers would have had to pass through dozens and dozens of 
checkpoints. They must not have had orange license plates.

At nearly every checkpoint, there’s someone with a “bomb detector.” 
The New York Times and others have already done stories exposing this 
swindle, but they’re still being used and every time I see them it 
fills me with frustrated rage.

Basically, they look like a plastic pistol grip with a radio antenna 
sticking out and a coaxial cable running from the handle to a pouch on 
the belt. The officer must walk forward and wave it back and forth and 
it supposedly detects bombs and explosives.

Except it doesn’t, at all. It has no power source. It’s a fraud. They 
cost more than $10,000 each and have a big “made in UK” written on the 
side as though that’s a seal of quality. It’s basically a ruthless con 
on a struggling developing country seeking a silver bullet to their 
runaway bomb problem.

The British government is trying to get them banned from being 
exported. And they are everywhere.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t stop the blasts that day. We were coming 
back from the Najaf when we found out, sitting in a roadside 
restaurant, watching the images flash across the TV screens.

The bombs had gone off just 45 minutes away, the TV crew with us 
immediately headed off to go cover the aftermath, but my security team 
said, looks like we’re going to have to find a way to bypass Hillah. 
And my thought was, should I be bypassing the news? Shouldn’t we be 
heading to the bomb scene to report?

But I was actually ok with it.

So we decided to swing through Karbala and head up north from there, 
until we smacked into the Karbala checkpoint, where they promptly 
pulled us over because we were carrying weapons.

And they wouldn’t let us pass. We had the permits, we had the passes 
identifying us as journalists. They could see I was a foreigner, but 
it was nothing doing. Alert levels were high, we were not allowed into 
their city. Nevermind the fact that a bunch of journalists, a 
foreigner, and their registered security were not exactly the standard 
profile for a suicide bomb squad.

After an hour of negotiations, arguments and pleading later, we gave 
up, turned back to try to find another way home. Just then the phone 
rang and it was our stringer in Karbala, whom we’d call earlier for 
help.

He said it was ok, he knew someone in the city’s operations center, 
had made a phone call and we could go through. And sure enough we 
could. Some guy, sight unseen, had made a phone call, and now we were 
ok, after they had categorically refused as passage for an hour.

Fuming, we drove on, while one of Iraqi security guys just kept 
sputtering that the whole country was “fashel,” a failure. It didn’t 
help his mood much when we were stopped and pulled over at another 
checkpoint shortly afterwards in some tiny village.

We made it out 20 minutes later. Only to be stopped a few villages 
later, in this case the delay was because one of the police officers 
had a bet with another about how the ammo slide on a 9mm pistol worked 
and one of our guys was carrying one.

By this time, the guys were just beside themselves. It was almost more 
infuriating when the checkpoints no longer stopped us as we got closer 
to Baghdad. Why not? Why not now? Why were we so dangerous to the 
others but not anymore?

And always with the blasted, stupid bomb detector giving them a false 
sense of safety and achievement. At one checkpoint policemen at a 
checkpoint had made his own detector with an antenna and a piece of 
metal – a crude copy of a fraud.

Finally back in Baghdad, what a relief. A three hour journey had taken 
4.5 hours and it was dark and we just wanted to get home. Just 10 
minutes from the office, we sail through another checkpoint when the 
policeman knocks on the window to stop the car.

He wants to know who I am. “He doesn’t look Iraqi.” No I don’t. But 
that doesn’t mean you should stop the car. Especially if it’s just 
curiosity. The others sorted it out, I stayed quiet, too tired and 
angry to speak.

They were checking all the wrong points. They had built a system of 
checkpoints that couldn’t stop the bombs, but instead focused on all 
the wrong people.

That morning, unbeknownst to us, 10 policemen were shot dead at 
checkpoints around the city. Men disguised in janitors’ overalls 
pulled up and killed them with submachine guns fitted with silencers. 
Many were killed while they slept.

As we arrived home, one of my companions turned to me and said, what 
do you expect? Who would want to be a policeman in this country? Only 
the least educated and the most desperate.

DispatchesAbu RayIraq