The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged embassyriots
Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

A more detailed (and official) presentation of the events of that day has now emerged from testimony delivered by Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, Bureau of Diplomatic Security:

The attack began at approximately 9:40 pm local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity. They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building.

At the same time, attackers swept across the compound …. At 11pm, members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site.

…. They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.

…. In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex. Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.

A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.

Witnesses also told Congress that they had felt in the months prior to the attack that the new Libyan government did not have the capability to protect the consulate or confront the “al Qaeda” presence in the country.

The biggest headache for the White House has been that contradictory remarks made by Obama Administration officials and the US intelligence community last month about the nature of the attacks have yet to be fully resolved. Arch-neoconservative John Podhoretz implied that the Foreign Service and intelligence community are falling on their swords to protect the White House, which is surely a stretch given the reality of the Administration’s simple unpreparedness in light of a disaster like this goes a long way in explaining the muddled responses. But given the way in which information has been leaked/obtained by other news outlets about intelligence community assessments about the attack, it’s hard to not come to that conclusion Podhoretz does. Former DCIA (and current Romney advisor) Michael Hayden certainly feels this way as well, taking a defensive tone in a CNN editorial criticizing the White House.

I think what we will end up seeing, though, is that Obama Administration just failed to gauge the warnings it was receiving. Libya simply does not seem to have been prioritized despite the warnings; it was the success story, things were under control, the peripheral MENA theater compared to Syria or Egypt, and even Yemen.

Anti-interventionists in Congress reiterated their opposition to the whole Libyan issue by noting that NATO intervention gave Islamists breathing room. One such Islamist is Abd al Hakim Bilhaj, who has an instructive interview on his countrymen’s views of the attacks circulating in the UK Arabic press.

Before his rise to prominence in the Tripolitanian Military Council as a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was a person of interest to US intelligence because of his anti-Qadhafi AfPak excursions (arrested and extradited to Libya in 2004, he was pardoned by the regime in 2010). Bilhaj, who Al-Watan Party was creamed in the summer elections, recently granted an interview to the UK’s Arabic press in which he condemned the attacks specifically, and al Qaeda in general, though ever politic, he did not blame any particular group.

Bilhaj, whose position has weakened greatly the 2012 elections and probably hopes to regain some influence in the new, “tense” atmosphere, is no fool. His reading of the mood in Libya — simmering anger at the militias, limited confidence in the government, an unwillingness to handover weapons “just in case” — shows that while Libya is not coming apart at the seams, it has weathered some truly trying tests better than others since 2011. Some of them have not gone so well, as we’ve seen with the highly symbolic airport siege, but other tests, such as the summer elections, did not end badly at all (and as Issandr has noted, when we talk about Libyan Islamists were are not generally talking about Salafists, though such men are represented among the militias and new political parties).

The attacks are indeed troubling because they illustrate how organized and professionally competent these Islamist organizations are — and how they have likely infiltrated the government.

But, for starters, the Libyan military did not abandon its posts when asked to defend American lives and property.

And if there were no crowds railing against that stupid Muslim-trolling con-artist film in Benghazi, there certainly were crowds protesting the attacks after the fact. Bear in mind that even in, say, Yemen, where protestors did storm embassy compounds and the US is deeply unpopular for its involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the anti-American turnout was at most a few hundred people — perhaps a hundred times that number turned out to protest the attacks in Libya in a “Friday of Outrage”. The attacks were a final straw for many Libyans already tired of the militias’ gunslinging (as was the case in Yemen, and elsewhere).

Perhaps the aftermath of the attacks will serve as a wake-up call for the new Libyan government, which is still reporting clashes in the stronghold of Bani Walid and hasn’t gotten the worst of the militias to cease their “polity within a polity” behavior. Problems with the judiciary and police are not going away anytime soon, either. Obviously, Libyans will have a long road to walk, as Borzou Daragahi notes in his latest dispatch for The Financial Times, with the grim subheading of “[o]ptimism born of the July elections has been replaced by uncertainty and fear.” It’s worth noting that the protests turned violent in some cases and demonstrators clashed with fighters:

The result [of the “Friday of Outrage”] the has been political and economic deadlock in Tripoli as the various political forces battle for control of the direction of the new Libya. No camp wants any other to achieve success. Laws to clarify the role of civil society and private investment have been stuffed into drawers.

…. Islamist militias and their political allies now seethe with anger, feeling betrayed by the nation they defended during the revolution. They are openly mistrustful of the former exiles now dominating the government. They whisper of dark conspiracies by Gaddafi loyalists teaming up with liberal politicians and western powers.

But they are walking it, no one can deny that … except for Fox News, apparently.

While I’ve been critical of the Libyan government’s response to the militias, I’ve also been critical of the US for thinking that intervention could be carried out from 30,000 feet and everyone goes home in time for happy hour (Libyans not included).

They claimed interventionism, now they’d better act the postwar part of helping the government handle such difficult matters as setting up a judiciary, training a police force and securing loose arms, and that doesn’t mean putting dead Navy SEALs in a talking points memo or dispatching a fleet to show that all of a sudden “we mean business.”

Whether a less muscle-bound policy in Libya would have somehow prevented this all is going to be debated for years to come. Our track record in the region suggests, though, that more of such policies now, directed at Libya out of a desire to “avenge” our loss of life and face there, are not going to help anyone — except the armed Islamist spoilers Libyans are demonstrating their disdain for.

Blowback from Egypt's released jihadist militants?

This is an important story by Siobhan Gorman and Matt Bradley in the Wall Street Journal:

The revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa also emptied prisons of militants, a problem now emerging as a potential new terrorist threat.

Fighters linked to one freed militant, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, took part in the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya that killed four Americans, U.S. officials believe based on initial reports. Intelligence reports suggest that some of the attackers trained at camps he established in the Libyan Desert, a former U.S. official said.

Western officials say Mr. Ahmad has petitioned the chief of al Qaeda, to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.

U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Mr. Ahmad's activities for several months. The Benghazi attacks gave a major boost to his prominence in their eyes.

Mr. Ahmad, although believed to be one of the most potent of the new militant operatives emerging from the chaos of the Arab Spring, isn't the only one, according to Western officials. They say others are also trying to exploit weaknesses in newly established governments and develop a capacity for strikes that could go well beyond recent violent protests in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

Since the fall of Mubarak, in Egypt alone dozens of former Islamist militants have been released, both by the SCAF and later by President Mohammed Morsi. Field Marshall Hussein Tantawy, while heading SCAF and acting as Egypt's de facto president after Mubarak stepped down, released hundreds. Egypt Independent's Heba Afify reported as early as June 2011 about this:

According Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who represents Islamist groups, over 400 political detainees were released since Mubarak’s resignation, including 80 leaders from the Jama’a al-Islamiya, the most notorious of whom is Aboud al-Zomor, charged in the murder of late President Anwar Sadat.

“The leaders of the Jama’a al-Islamiya who made the decisions were released while members of the Jama’a remain in prison,” says Taher. “This is not rational.”

Having been excluded from the military council’s decision to release prisoners, many of the prisoners have begun to relive feelings of injustice that they experienced when they were first detained.

“We were treated unjustly before and after the revolution. There is no difference between those who were released and those who remain in prison,” says Taher.

The lobbying has continued and Morsi, in July alone, released 25 such men. Many of them come from radical groups such as Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad who had been held in jail since the 1990s or later, or are veterans of the Saudi-funded (and often American-backed) jihads in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some may have been part of the recantation program run by Egyptian security, but not all. It may be that, in some cases at least, they legally had to be released because they had served their sentences (even life sentences are limited to 25 years in Egypt, although in the past the ministry of interior did not always release militants, even if they had court decision in their favor.)

At the end of last July, Reuters' Tom Perry reported that Morsi was pardoning some militants under pressure from Islamist groups:

(Reuters) - Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi has freed a group of Islamists jailed for militancy during Hosni Mubarak's era a step seen as a gesture to hardliners who supported his presidential bid.

A lawyer for 17 Islamists, many of them held since the 1990s, say they owe their release to a pardon issued by Mursi. At least three of the released Islamists had been condemned to death, said the lawyer Ibrahim Ali.

Those released in recent days include members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, jailed during the group's armed insurrection against the state in the 1990s, and Islamic Jihad, the movement behind the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

The pardon underlines efforts by Egypt's first Islamist president to satisfy the some of the hardliners he courted with election promises to implement Islamic law.

Mursi is facing calls from Islamists to secure the release of the remaining few dozen of their brethren who they believe are being kept behind bars by security forces resistant to the new president's wishes.

These may include many people like Abu Ahmad who are not articularly well-known, but some of Egypt's most high-profile killers. This recently included "Sheikh" Abu Elka Abd Rabbo, the man who killed secular intellectual Farag Fouda in June 1992. This was the first major attack on a public intellectual by radical Islamists in the Mubarak era, and would followed within a few years by the assassination attempt against novelist Naguib Mahfouz and threats against many others, as well as the spread of hesba lawsuits against   critical Muslim thinkers who questioned fundamentalist and traditional orthodoxy, like Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid. Abd Rabbo appeared on TV last week on the popular show Qahira wal Nass, while he regretted killing Fouda ("even if he was an unbeliever") his appearance did send a chill among Egyptian secularists for whom Fouda is a martyred icon.

Morsi also made a promise, during his campaign, to lobby the US for the release of Gamaa Islamiya leader Omar Abdel Rahman. (Not likely to happen, of course.) But his positive response to Salafi groups' call for the release of many former militants and the quiet and fast manner in which they have already been released does raise some important questions. It should be noted that many of these men were brutally tortured, and many may be too old to be any kind of genuine nuisance. But some have dedicated following within extremists groups (even of these groups are or have become non-violent) and will now have the opportunity and platforms to proselytize. The bottom line is, what criteria is being used to figure out who to release (other than demands by relatives and supporters) and what will be done to monitor their activities if they are released? Is the Morsi admnistration going to take responsibility for those who end up returning to their bad old ways in a region that offers plenty such opportunities?

Going back to the WSJ story, they have more on Abu Ahmad:

Of the new militant operatives, Mr. Ahmad is among the most worrisome to Western officials. Thought to be about 45, he is a native of Cairo's Shobra district, a densely populated, low-income neighborhood along the Nile that includes many Coptic Christians, said Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, who recently interviewed several of Mr. Ahmad's associates in Egypt.

According to Mr. Barfi, Mr. Ahmad attended college, studying either literature or commerce, and went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s. There, said his associates, he trained to make bombs.

On returning to Egypt in the 1990s, a former U.S. official said, Mr. Ahmad became head of the operational wing of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was then headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician who is now the chief of al Qaeda. Associates of Mr. Ahmad agree he was part of Egyptian Islamic Jihad but say he wasn't among its leaders.

Many of that group's fighters embraced a cease-fire with the government of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1997, but Mr. Ahmad earned a reputation as a hard-liner by rejecting it, according to Mr. Barfi.

"Unlike the organization's leaders who have reconciled with the state and have eagerly embraced the democratic process, Mr. Ahmad and his cohorts reject any semblance of compromise with the state they have fought for decades," Mr. Barfi said.

Former militants who knew Mr. Ahmad in an Egyptian prison, where he was locked up around 2000, describe a hardened inmate who showed belligerence toward the guards. While most prisoners submitted to random cell searches, Mr. Ahmad often refused to let guards remove items from his cell, the former inmates say.

He would start by preaching to the guards and escalate to shouted insults, said a former jihadi imprisoned with him starting in 2006. That often landed Mr. Ahmad in solitary confinement, in a roofless cell exposed to the elements. The guards sometimes let in dogs or insects to harass him, said the ex-jihadi.

Freed last year, Mr. Ahmad is building his own terror group, say Western officials, who call it the Jamal Network. They say he appears to be trying to tap former fellow inmates such as Murjan Salim, a man who, like Mr. Ahmad, has ties to al Qaeda's Dr. Zawahiri. Former associates of Mr. Ahmad said Mr. Salim is directing aspiring jihadis to Mr. Ahmad's camps in Libya.

In an interview in Cairo, Mr. Salim denied any connection to jihad, citing his physical limitations. He uses a wheelchair, a result, he said, of being wounded by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Also freed in Egypt last year was Mohammed al-Zawahiri, a brother of the al Qaeda leader. Mohammed al-Zawahiri backed a protest in Cairo three weeks ago but says he had no role in a later invasion of U.S. Embassy grounds.

U.S. officials believe he has helped Mr. Ahmad connect with the al Qaeda chief. In an interview, Mohammed al-Zawahiri denied that, saying that though imprisoned with Mr. Ahmad, he isn't helping him. "These are all accusations without proof," he said.

Mr. Zawahiri denied resuming past militant activities. "This is always what they say," he said. "This is meant to scare us away from exercising our political rights."

As for Mr. Ahmad, associates say he now lives in Libya. Western officials believe that besides financing through al Qaeda's Yemeni wing, he has tapped into its system for smuggling fighters. At his camps, militants are believed to be training future suicide bombers, say current and former U.S. officials, who add that he has established limited links with jihadists in Europe.

Incidentally, this really raises some important question about how the embassy riots started – was the campaign to incite a riot outside the embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi, as well as the campaign  on Salafi channels, deliberate attempts to create cover for a pre-planned attack on the Benghazi compound?

Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage?

Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage? : The New Yorker

Steve Coll:

Last week, Newsweek launched a Twitter hash tag, #MuslimRage, to spur chatter about its cover story. What followed may constitute the most inspiring revolt yet of new media against old. Scores of English-speaking Muslim Twitter users, offended by the magazine’s clichéd imagery, hijacked (“pun intended,” one wrote) the online forum to post jokes about Muslim rage in the real world. One lamented a shortage of “Sharia Garcia” ice cream. A woman in a head scarf wrote, “I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows.” Another, much re-tweeted entry read, “Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can’t yell for him.” We await an explication of the roots of Muslim irony

Certainly the best thing to have come out of this entire fiasco.

Islam and the protests: Rage, but also self-criticism

Islam and the protests: Rage, but also self-criticism

The Economist's take on the embassy riots:

Yet the debate has also sharpened criticism of religion’s intrusion into politics. To expose the pitfalls of Egypt’s blasphemy laws, for instance, activists have filed suits against a sheikh who angered Egyptian Christians by publicly burning a bible in response to the anti-Muslim film clip. Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, provoked an angry backlash by staging a giant rally to protest against the film. Critics not only charged him with manipulating the incident to ingratiate himself with Sunni Muslims, among whom Mr Nasrallah’s star has waned with the region-wide rise of sectarian animosity. They called him a hypocrite for condemning America as a shielder of blasphemers while ignoring the offences to God committed by his ally, Syria’s regime. Its soldiers have destroyed mosques and, by the evidence of YouTube footage, forced prisoners to say, “There is no God but Bashar Assad”.
In Latitude: Cairo's Walls of Shame

In Cairo, Mixed Feelings About 'Innocence of Muslims' - NYTimes.com

I have a short comment on the IHT blog Latitude. Here's the conclusion:

But the protests also highlighted more important problems. Such as why the police were not able to contain the rioters, or what impact the protests might have on sectarian relations in Egypt: the film’s alleged producer is a Coptic émigré from Egypt. He and several other exiled Egyptians — as well as Terry Jones, the Florida fundamentalist said to have been consulted in the making of the film — face arrest should they come here. (One poor soul, Albier Saber, a Copt, was taken into custody merely for linking to the YouTube trailer on his Facebook account.)

And there’s the matter of the double standard that is created when a sheikh who burned a Bible — rather perplexingly, since Muslims consider it a holy book — is free whereas Christians who insult Islam face immediate backlash.

Even as the anger against America dies down, the underlying tension stirred up by this affair may have ongoing consequences in Egypt — not least because it will boost the case of the Islamists who want to put a ban on blasphemy at the heart of the constitution currently being drafted.

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

Good comments by Tarek Ramadan on the struggle for who's going to be the biggest defender of Islam:

And the second thing that we have to say—and this is important because you were talking about Mohamed Morsi and people, the Islamists in Muslim-majority countries—there is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, "We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West."

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak | World | TIME.com

From a really great TIME piece by Ashraf Khalil :

Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

Read the whole thing.

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

Gleen Greenwald in the Guardian:

Given the history of the US in Egypt, both long-term and very recent, it takes an extraordinary degree of self-delusion and propaganda to depict Egyptian anger toward the US as "ironic" on the ground that it was the US who freed them and "allowed" them the right to protest. But that is precisely the theme being propagated by most US media outlets.

He cites examples, too. 

Another depressing aspect of this affair: seeing the same kind of articles pop up about "Muslim rage" as after 9/11. I don't know about all the countries where the protests took place, but in may Arab countries a small number of protestors took part. The idea of a spontaneous surge of anger does a big disservice to understanding what happened, especially when the initial events (Egypt/Libya) are likely to have been planned by small fringe groups and then widened as they were relayed by the Salafi international where local allies of that current stirred up more protests. That's the interesting story, even if does not excuse the very real dysfunction that causes many to go apoplectic (without attending protests) about this stupid trailer of a movie that might not even exist and the security lapses that occurred — not surprising in Libya, perhaps, but perplexing in Egypt and Tunisia.

Update: Bassam Haddad comments rather nicely on this: "Was the Arab Spring Really Worth It?": The Fascinating Arrogance of Power.

That line in between the quotation marks was on CNN. What morons.

A few words on embassy riots

I've had a couple of very busy days here and am about to return to Cairo after a couple of months of absence. Id did write this op-ed for The National which captures some of my initial thoughts about what I'm calling, for shorthand, the embassy riots. Needless to say I find these very depressing, and as my thinking evolves about them (being quite far away from them at the moment) I am not satisfied that I know enough about the evolution of the protests — how they started, who initiated them, etc. 

It appears very likely that the Benghazi attack that killed US diplomats was a pre-planned attack by a group probably trying to avenge the death of Sheikh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader. And it seems that the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group led by Mohammed Zawahri (Ayman's brother) and a few fellow travellers, and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That these protests expanded and got out of hand speaks volumes of the complicated, chaotic situation in Egypt. (I'll pass on the government's reaction, or lack thereof, for now.) I think it is important to see who involved in getting the ball rolling — and particularly the international network of Islamist activists who amplify and spread this manufactured outrage (I say manufactured because why now and not, say, at the time of the scandal over the desecreation of Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan or other incidents?)

I'll write more in the next few days, but here is an excerpt from The National op-ed:

Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week's case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts.

This, perhaps, is what has changed between the 1988 Rushdie fatwa and more recent examples of Islamist outrage: thanks to the internet, a regional Danish newspaper or an amateur film have become targets just as much as a celebrated, best-selling novelist.

Not that these protests, riots and killings are entirely about insults anyway: that the protesters chose to target US embassies has as much to do with other grievances (US-led wars, support for Israel, etc) and the convenience of having a prominent address, since protests outside the filmmaker's house, say, are out of the question.

One can certainly question why protest organisers chose the embassies, as if the US government was responsible for a film made by one of its citizens. And why do organisers sometimes lie, as when Nader Bakkar - who speaks for Egypt's Salafi Nour Party, a partner with President Mohammed Morsi's party - told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the film had been broadcast on US channels?

And why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?