If something could be poignant in its banality, the protests today in Saudi Arabia by women defying the authorities and daring to drive would fit the category. Though their act of mass civil disobedience may be small in scale, the women have gotten worldwide attention thanks in part to YouTube, where videos of the defiance were posted. Watching women drive shouldn't be as compelling as it is, but the recordings are quite powerful.
Below are a couple of the posted videos:
And here's an argument for why perhaps the wrong gender is being banned from the road:
It's Friday, and once again there were major protests throughout Syria. Reuters reported at least 16 people were killed, including a teenage boy. Protests have become a weekly occurrence, and the numbers being reported are startling. Al Jazeera cites an eyewitness claiming 150,000 people came out in Hama, the country's fourth largest city and the site of a massacre in 1982 that left at least 10,000 dead. If Al Jazeera's number is accurate, that would mean almost a quarter of the city's population was out in the streets.
The Syrian regime's response today has also been dramatic. Tanks and armored personnel carriers swept into two key towns in the north-- places that sit on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo. The government called it a "limited military operation" to restore order.
Here's video of the large crowds in Hama:
And video of protesters setting fire to the Russian and Iranian flags:
A couple of key things to watch:
Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a steady ally of Assad's government. But the relationship has cooled and might be heading for a breaking point, as thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey. Last week, Erdogan called Syria's crackdown "savagery."
"Syria had two friends. One was Erdogan and the other is the Iranians," Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University told Passport. "They have lost Erdogan. Erdogan tried to convince Bashar from the beginning to reform, lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, but Bashar didn't listen to him."
Barkey said the Turks feel slighted. They threw the Syrian regime a lifeline at a time when it was being pressured by the Europeans and the Americans, and Erdogan expected to have more of a say with Assad now.
So what does this all mean?
According to Barkey, if the United States plays its cards right, there's an opportunity to let the Turks take the lead in dealing with Syria and possibly even do what Washington probably won't be able to-- persuade the Russians to back a U.N. Security Council Resolution against Syria that actually has teeth. That's far from certain, but Erdogan, who prides himself on being at the forefront of history, might soon be ready to take up that charge.
The end of Rami Makhlouf?
The Syrian business tycoon and cousin of Assad publicly "resigned" on state TV late Thursday from his various business ventures, including as head of the country's main cell phone company. The fact that the regime is willing to toss out someone seen as especially close to Assad is an indication it understands it needs to do more than it's been doing, said Rob Malley a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. The move can be seen as a gesture to the population, which overwhelmingly wanted Makhlouf gone.
Makhlouf's image was tarnished within Syria after an interview with the New York Times last month in which he said the government would fight to the end to survive and that "if there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel."
The Jolie Factor
Hollywood do-gooder Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Turkey today. Though there are fewer than 10,000 of them so far, Jolie could help their plight become a cause célèbre and push governments to take stronger action against the Syrian regime. Look for an increase in press coverage of the refugee crisis in the wake of her visit. Though the scale is much lower than other refugee crises around the world, sympathy for the Syrians fighting inside the country and those fleeing from the conflict will likely grow. A crisis needs a compelling narrative to get attention. And a crisis needs the world's attention to move the needle of world powers.
All in all, it's been a bad day for Bashar Assad.
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's new chief, might lack the charisma and presence of his predecessor, but that hasn't stopped him from communicating prolifically over the years, rallying followers to attack Western interests, condemning France's banning of the hijab, and praising recent protests in the Arab world. Below are some of his major statements over the years.
Forming al Qaeda (Feb. 1998)
In a faxed statement to a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of their new group, al Qaeda, intent on waging war against the United States and its allies -- and for the first time called for the killing of American civilians. The founding document for the new group (a coalition of Islamist organizations, including Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad) said: "To kill the Americans and their allies--civilian and military--is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in nay country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Asqua Mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."
Telling Iran to shut up with their 9/11 conspiracies (April 2008)
In an audio interview, Zawahiri lashed out at Iran and Hezbollah for propagating the conspiracy theory that Israel -- not al Qaeda -- was really behind the Sept. 11 attacks. He accused Iran and its proxy of trying to discredit al Qaeda by diminishing its signature success. Shiite Iran has long been one of Zawahiri's biggest targets, rhetorically at least. In response to a question about the theory that Israel was really behind the attacks, Zawahiri said, "The purpose of this lie is clear-- [to suggest] that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no one else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it ... Iran's aim here is also clear--to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Sparking a debate about female jihadists (April 2008)
In that same interview, Zawahiri set off an emotional debate in jihadi circles with his insistence that al Qaeda does not allow women to fight and that a woman's role is limited to caring for the home and children of male fighters. His comment angered some female al Qaeda sympathizers.
"How many times have I wished I were a man," wrote one woman in a jihadi chat room, according to the Associated Press. " When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri said there are no women in al Qaeda, he saddened and hurt me ... I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest. I am powerless."
Zawahiri's comment showed he was a bit out of touch with reality in the Middle East. At the time, women were asserting a stronger role in fighting American and other forces. In Iraq alone, there had been at least 20 female suicide bombers since the start of the American war there.
Zawahiri's first wife was killed by an American airstrike in Kandahar in 2001, which might account for some of his views on the topic.
Congratulations, Mr. President (Nov. 2008)
Newly elected Barack Obama got a special shout out from the al Qaeda No. 2, who called him a "house negro." "It is true about you and people like you...what Malcom X said about the house negroes," he said in audio message posted online, lumping Obama in with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Zawahiri also taunted Obama about increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. "Beware that the [stray] dogs of Afghanistan have savored the taste of your soldiers' flesh, so do send them in thousands."
Voicing support (sort of) for the Arab Spring (April 2011)
Al Qaeda's standing as the vanguard force against the corrupt regimes of the Middle East was undoubtedly diminished by the Arab Spring this year. And Zawahiri's often rambling, unfocused statements on the protests didn't help. In April, he lashed out at both the NATO troops bombing Qaddafi's infrastructure and Qaddafi himself. "I want to say to our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries, that if the Americans and the NATO forces enter Libya, then their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia and Algeria and the rest of the Muslim countries should rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Qaddafi and the rest of the NATO."
According to Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush, his statements on the Arab Spring make clear that under Zawahiri's leadership, al Qaeda's goal will still be targeting the "far enemy."
Bin Laden's eulogy (June 2011)
Zawahiri paid tribute to bin Laden in a YouTube video. He praised him as a "hero of the first battle line," and a "man who said no to America." He also warned of a major new attack against the United States.
Some analysts found it curious that he made no reference as to who would take the reins of al Qaeda. Zarate speculated that the delay in his naming was partly due to real questions within the organization about whether he was the right man for the job. As analyst Leah Farrall pointed out, there are several second generation al Qaeda figures who have more charisma and appeal than Zawahiri.
A confrontation is brewing between the executive and legislative branches over the legality of America's continued military role enforcing the no fly zone over Libya. On Tuesday, June 14, House Speaker John Boehner warned the president he had until Sunday to seek authorization from Congress for the operation, or else he'd be in violation of the War Powers Resolution-the controversial 1973 law that requires presidents to get congressional approval for any military conflict lasting longer than 60 days. The bombing campaign in Libya is now up to day 89.
The White House said it would provide a legal defense to Congress later today for why it isn't in violation of the War Powers law.
"We are in the final stages of preparing extensive information for the House and Senate that will address a whole host of issues about our ongoing efforts in Libya," national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the same day as Boehner's warning to Obama, the House voted 248-163 to cut off funding for the U.S. mission in Libya, which is costing at least $40 million a month. The amendment to a military appropriations bill was introduced by Brad Sherman (D-CA) as a reaction to what he said was the President's violation of the War Powers Act. It still has to be approved by the Senate. Foreign Policy spoke to Sherman about his decision to pursue the drastic step of defunding the war.
Foreign Policy: You've used some strong language with regard to the White House-accusing the president of deliberately violating the law by not seeking congressional approval for Libya. And saying he's "embraced the idea of an imperial presidency."
Brad Sherman: Look, there has been a move over the last three or four decades toward an imperial presidency. Many historians and constitutional scholars have commented on that. And, I don't think that's what the founders had in mind. They were students of ancient Rome. They knew that Rome rose as a republic and that it declined under an imperial executive. And this isn't about the current president. This is about the last three or four decades.
FP: But this particular vote is about the current president.
BS: Well, this is the president now. No president has said they would follow the war powers law, even though it's the law of the land. Even though it's an extremely generous allocation of authority to the president. For a president not to adhere to the War Powers Act is a president-and, there are many-who takes a truly extreme view of executive power.
FP: Lee Hamilton and James Baker argued that this has more to do with political turf battles than foreign policy...
BS: This is not a foreign policy dispute. This is a domestic constitutional dispute. And if I agreed with absolutely everything a president was doing in foreign policy, I would still not support the violation of law. How you do it is a domestic issue and that's far more important than foreign policy. People have got to understand that America cannot play the role that it wants to play in foreign policy if it ignores its own constitution. And no matter how important they think foreign policy is, constitutional policy is more important.
FP: On Libya specifically, what about the argument that NATO is running the show...that the U.S. handed off responsibility to them?
BS: There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says you can violate the law as long as NATO blesses it. There is nothing in the American Constitution that says you can violate the law as long as you're consistent with a resolution of the Arab League. And there is nothing in the Constitution that says you can violate the U.S. law as long as your acting consistent with the UN Security Council resolution.
FP: But there is some dispute about the War Powers Act, isn't there? The Supreme Court has never decisively come down one way or the other on who has the ultimate power when it comes to declaring war.
BS: There are certain constitutional issues where the Supreme Court doesn't want to weigh in. That doesn't mean the Constitution is void.
FP: I know you said it's a constitutional issue, but are you concerned that this could be seen as undercutting the president overseas?
BS: There are those in the executive branch under this and former and future administrations who believe America can go forward only if we shred the Constitution in favor of an imperial presidency. They are advocates for an imperial presidency. They are not advocates for the Constitution and they are not advocates for the rule of law.
The State Department believes in democracy and the rule of law in every country, except the United States. It is official policy of the State Department that no president should ever actually admit that the War Powers Act is binding or is the law. Look at how extreme a position it is. Whether or not we are under attack, whether or not there is an emergency situation, whether or not an ally is attacked, a president may send American forces in any quantity he or she thinks necessary for any duration, for any purpose. I mean is there any constraint that the State Department is willing to acknowledge?
FP: Isn't it in the U.S. interest to see that Muammar Qaddafi step down?
BS: Yes. The second most important thing is that we bring democracy and the rule of law to Libya. The first most important thing is that we have democracy and the rule of law in the United States.
Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions that reached a unity agreement last month, began negotiating in Cairo this morning over who would lead the new government. According to press reports and sources close to the sides, negotiators reached a consensus on a new leader, to replace current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is seen as close to Fatah. But negotiators are keeping the name under wraps until next Tuesday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal are expected to officially mark the agreement.
"We have agreed that the talks will be finalized next Tuesday, on June 21, with the participation of Abbas and Khaled Mashal," a Fatah representative said in Cairo earlier today.
The choice could have major near-term repercussions for Palestinian statehood. The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if the candidate is seen as too close to Hamas.
Perhaps wary that he might be soon losing American support, Abbas is in Saudi Arabia today, trying to get more money from the kingdom's leaders, according to a Washington-based source.
Finding a choice to fill the leadership role seemed less than certain just this past weekend. On Sunday, Hamas firmly rejected Fatah's nomination of Fayyad, who is credited with helping to build up institutions and commerce in the West Bank (and was a representative favored by the United States). Hamas opposed him because, as prime minister of the Fatah-led government, he is blamed for supporting the arrests of Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank.
"For us, Fayyad is unacceptable because his name is connected with a black phase in the history of the Palestinian people," a Hamas official, Taher al-Nounou, told the New York Times.
Analysts say they are keeping the name under wraps so that both sides can minimize any campaign against the nominee. The negotiations have included only a very small circle of people close to Abbas and Mashal. And there are some in both camps who will likely disagree with the choice.
One Middle East analyst speculated, "At some level, both sides probably felt it was better not to reach an agreement for a while and keep things going as they are."
The two sides agreed earlier this year to establish a government of unaffiliated ministers, mainly made up of technocrats, and to prepare for elections within a year.
Mark Perry, an independent Mideast analyst, said the candidate would probably have to be someone from the West Bank, since it would be difficult to negotiate with a prime minister who is based in Gaza, since traveling to the capital Ramallah is not possible. But the candidate would likely have some affiliation with Hamas.
"Hamas is actually the stronger party at the table" in these negotiations, Perry said. "They won the election in 2006. It will be hard for Abu Mazen [Abbas] to argue their role should be diminished."
It's been a tough couple of weeks for al Qaeda. Since the successful Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the terror network has suffered additional losses that analysts say are taking a heavy toll on the group.
Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qaeda's operational leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this month (though al Qaeda hasn't confirmed his death, reports of which have been incorrect before). And last week, an al Qaeda leader in East Africa -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- was killed by Somali forces in Mogadishu. Mohammed was the most wanted man in Africa.
Analysts and U.S. officials say the deaths have created a power vacuum.
"The organization is in a great deal of turmoil," a U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy. "It's trying to sort itself out with what's going on."
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said Kashmiri and Mohammed were key operational figures, not easily replaced due to their long pedigrees of planning and executing attacks.
"They are especially important because they would have been looked on to plan and implement any acts of retribution [for bin Laden's death] from al Qaeda," he said. "Their killings knock them seriously off balance."
Of course, al Qaeda is well-known for its ability to replenish its ranks. Analysts like Hoffman and Evan Kohlmann, who has consulted with the U.S. government, see a few key names potentially emerging to fill the void.
1. Saif al-Adel
Born in Egypt in 1960 or 1963, according to the FBI. Currently believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region.
Al-Adel was reportedly named the interim chief of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. After the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran, where he was eventually put under house arrest. In 2008, Iran swapped him for a diplomat taken captive by al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Signature attacks: Has played a hand in many al Qaeda attacks, allegedly dispatching Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, to meet Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; and aiding the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa.
Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images
A Bahraini security court sentenced 20-year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi to one year in prison yesterday. The young woman, infamous for her February recitation of an anti-government poem in Pearl Square, has been found guilty of speaking out against the king and inciting hatred. Her poem has become an international symbol of the Bahraini opposition:
We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams
Down with Hamad
Al-Qurmezi has been in captivity since March. She was rumored to have been raped and tortured after an alleged phone call was made from doctors at an army hospital in April. Yesterday, a relative confirmed that her face had been shocked with an electrical cable, she was forced to clean the prison bathroom with her hands, and held in a near-freezing cell for days at a time. Ayat al-Ghermezi has incited a rally cry for free speech in Bahrain, where female students, doctors and professors have become targets of government crackdown on civil rights.
She is not the only poet to face such harsh punishments recently in the Middle East. Waleed Mohammad al Rumaishi had his tongue cut out after reciting poetry in support of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009, civil servant and poet Moneer Said Hanna wrote a five-lined satirical poem about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is now serving a three year sentence, as well as paying a fine of over $16,000. Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, now fuels the revolution from Sweden after enduring over 13 years of torture in prison where he would carve pens from wood splinters and make ink from tea leaves in order to write poetry.
Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but for Ayat al-Qurmezi and her fellow dissident poets, the message is quite clear.
John Moore/Getty Images
Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who famously cofounded the "We Are All Khaled Saeed" Facebook page that helped spark the Egyptian revolution, is facing heat today for some comments he made on Twitter -- as well as resentment of his growing international stardom and his perceived failure to speak out more strongly against recent abuses by the Army.
Amira al-Husseini translates Ghonim's tweets:
The Council is losing its legitimacy with the revolutionaries but we need to realise that the revolutionaries are losing their credibility with the silent majority, who are starting to suffer from the economic side effects of the crisis
We all agree that Egypt was at the threshold of an economic crisis, whether the revolution happened or not .. but we still cannot deny the adverse side effects the revolution has had on the work force, particularly its poor segments
Workers who earn a daily wage (and those number not less than 1 million Egyptians) and people employed in tourism and real estate development, and many more, never hear us speaking about their concerns
Economy should be the priority for the revolutionaries, because it is the safety valve which will guarantee the continuation of the revolution and the cleansing of Egypt from corruption
That sparked an outpouring of criticism and support, set off by a mock Ghonim account called -- I kid you not -- @GhonimWithBalls (the bio on that account calls the real Ghonim a "crybaby bitch boy"):
Some highlights of the Twitter debate that followed:
@salmasaid: I #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he is failing to do his expected responsibilities given the role he chose.
@fazerofzanight: I #UnfollowedGhonimBecause because he doesnt deserve a platform and so I won't give him one.
@MohHKamel: Haven't #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he did for #Egypt more than any of you. He works hard, avoids the spotlight & doesn't run his mouth off.
@amirakhalil46: i #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he's a sell-out. Falling for the "economic stability" manipulative tactic!! Forgetting what #Jan25 is all about.
Few of the big Egyptian Twitterati, however, joined in, and the hastag devolved into crude personal attacks and bad jokes. Even its originator lost interest after a while:
@GhonimWithBalls: Disappointed to see #UnfollowedGhonimBecause evolve into personal attacks of @Ghonim as opposed to his views and policies.
Ghonim can still boast nearly 156,000 followers, and many conceded that he had a point. Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to announce a bailout package for the Egyptian economy, something the country desperately needs if the revolution is to succeed.
On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.
For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.
In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.
But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.
Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.
Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.
All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.
Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"
Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.
President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.
What is Obama going to say now?
Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images
The headline on the home page of the New York Times -- "U.S. Mideast Envoy Resigns After 2 Years of Frustration" -- says it all. George Mitchell's departing note to the president is curt:
When I accepted your request to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace my intention was to serve for two years. More than two years having passed I hereby resign, effective May 20, 2011. I trust this will provide sufficient time for an effective transition.
I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration. It has been an honor for me to again serve our country.
What's amazing is not Mitchell resigned, but that he hung in there so long. As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitchell has long been marginalized: The Israelis weren't interested in meeting him, and his own ostensible colleague in the White House, longtime peace-processor Dennis Ross, developed his back channel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (In typical fashion, Israel and Palestinian officials took the opportunity to blame each other for Mitchell's failure.)
This is usually the point in an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the author offers up an alternative strategy for advancing peace, but unfortunately I don't have one. The peace process has long been a charade -- a cowardly game of inches and incrementalism -- because none of the three parties to the dispute dares take any political risks. Most Israelis seem happy with the status quo, and the settlers' bloc has expanded to the point where its power may be impossible to check. Bibi Netanyahu has written an entire, tedious book explaining why he doesn't believe in a two-state solution, and takes every opportunity to exploit to the other side's obstructionism, divisions, and weakness. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a dumpy, charmless Fatah party functionary who has international support but close to zero street legitimacy; Hamas controls Gaza and has yet to admit the abject failure of its violent strategy. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still have vastly different expectations on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, and the current political leadership on both sides has made no effort to prepare the ground for concessions. Peace seems as far away as ever.
The one bright spot is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has put his head down and built functioning institutions to the point where one of the many arguments made in favor of the Israeli occupation -- that Palestinians just aren't ready to run their own country -- is no longer so credible. But Fayyad is not popular domestically, either, and he may become a casualty of the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal, a move that would spook the international donors that would keep any nascent Palestinian state afloat. The U.S. Congress is already making rumblings about cutting off aid.
All of this comes months ahead of Abbas's September deadline for declaring independence, a move that will put him in direct disagreement with the United States just as the 2012 campaign begins to hit up. European countries have signaled quietly that they might break with Washington and recognize Palestine, and frankly at this point I think many Americans would welcome the idea, because nothing else seems to work. Barack Obama will likely give a speech in August signaling his "deep commitment" to Middle East peace, but there is no chance whatsover that he'll make any bold or creative moves in election season. According to Yahoo's Laura Rozen, he's not even planning to raise the Arab-Israeli issue during next Thursday's big speech on the Middle East.
So the floor will be clear for Netanyahu, who meets with Obama next week and is due to address Congress on Tuesday, May 24. If past is prologue, we can expect Bibi to bamboozle: offer just enough movement to seem reasonable but not enough to actually induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And why not? There's very little pressure on him domestically to cut a deal, and he knows that little pressure will be forthcoming from Washington, especially given the risk that one Hamas leader or another will pop off and say something crazy.
Perhaps the abject failure of U.S. peacemaking efforts to date will encourage other folks -- I'm looking at you, Nabil El-Araby -- to come forward with creative solutions. But I wouldn't bet more than a few sheckels on it.
World opinion seems to be divided on the propriety of America's sometimes-raucous celebration in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. Hopefully, though, we can all agree that Americans -- by virtue of long-standing national tradition -- should at least be indulged a few attempts to make a quick buck off of the affair.
Book publishers have been especially eager to track down authors who can write knowledgably and efficiently - read: quickly! - on the subject of Al Qaeda. As one publishing executive told the Wall Street Journal, "If it's not going to be great, it's got to be as fast as possible."
A number of authors have been happy to oblige. Former Newsweek Jon Meacham has already begun editing an e-book essay collection called Beyond Bin Laden for Random House. Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War and The Osama bin Laden I Know, has been signed by Crown to write a book tentatively titled The Manhunt, covering Washington's search for the fugitive terrorist. The Free Press has also said that it is hoping to publish a digital work by Bergen.
Following Hollywood's standard playbook, Penguin Press announced Wednesday that it had signed New Yorker correspondent Steve Coll to write, in essence, a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, which covered America's vexed relations with radical Islam from the 1980s through September 11. The new book will discuss the last ten years of that relationship.
Finally, there are those publishers who already have a perfect book in the works, but somehow failed to predict months back that a potential assassination in early May would provide the opportunity for marketing synergy. Sales strategies have been scrambled, as relatively unknown authors prepare to bask in the full media spotlight. The Black Banner, a narrative account of the war on terror written by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who served on the front lines against Al Qaeda, is certain to be marketed heavily when it's published in September by Norton.
Then there's St. Martin's Press, which had originally scheduled a May 24 release for a book by retired Navy SEALs Howard Wasdin and Stephen Templin on the subject of the military's secretive Team Six. When that unit succeeded in its secret mission to kill bin Laden on May 1, the publishing house immediately pushed to get the book in stores as quickly as possible. The release date has now been moved to May 10. "Sometimes you get lucky with current events," Mark Resnick, executive editor at St. Martin's, told the New York Observer.
With the passage tonight of a robust U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone in Libya -- and then some -- Barack Obama has committed the United States to intervening in a Muslim country for the third time in a decade.
Only this time, the resolution's passage was a victory for the kind of painstaking multilateral diplomacy that was so often scorned by his predecessor, who preferred to work with "coalitions of the willing" and dismissed the United Nations as ineffective, weak, and morally questionable.
Of course, there's no guarantee that a piece of paper will succeeding in protecting the thousands of Libyans cheering in Benghazi's main square from Qaddafi's forces, which are gathering some 100 miles away outside the besieged town of Ajdabiya and have completely surrounded Misrata. What needs to happen now is swift military action against Qaddafi's heavy weapons -- call it a "no-drive zone," and perhaps even the bombing of his compound in Tripoli. Are Britain and France, which have taken the lead in pushing for military action, up to the challenge? Or will the U.S. once again be called upon to clean up a nearby mess Europe couldn't solve on its own? We'll soon find out.
One thought: It is amazing, and altogether incredible, that an uprising that began as peaceful protests calling for the release of political prisoners has made it this far, just as it is unfortunate that Qaddafi's horrific use of violence has forced the international community to intervene. But if such is the price of saving the Arab revolutions, so be it.
The world now has to win this fight. As NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen put it earlier today, "If Gadaffi prevails it will send a clear signal that violence pays."
At the Al Jazeera Forum this weekend in Doha, where dozens of Arab political figures and activists of all persuasions gathered to discuss the dramatic events sweeping the Middle East, there was a lot of optimism in the air. One Egyptian organizer, YouTube starlet Asma Mahfouz, even expressed her hope that next year's forum would be titled "One Arab Nation With No Borders."
Pressed over lunch about the risks of it all turning sour, one Emirati political scientist told several of us, "Let them dream. These youth have never had the chance to dream before. It is good to have dreams."
But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war -- one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq's hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world's No. 3 economy.
There are some bright spots: Morocco's King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don't seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region's autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.
What will happen next is anybody's guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens take to the streets.
Meanwhile, the region's two traditional problem children -- Lebanon and Palestine -- haven't even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon's March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven't begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off -- especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- are now flaunting their rejection of Washington's advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn't even get a courtesy call.
But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn't behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt's transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.
Here's the video of a Bloggingheads discussion I had Friday with Issandr el-Amrani, an FP contributor who now writes for the Economist and various other outlets, about the wave of revolutions now sweeping the Arab world. Issandr is one of the most knowledgable people I know when it comes to Middle East politics, and his thoughts are well worth your time.
Check it out:
In case there were any remaining question that Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the scion of Libya's fast-fading leader, is not exactly the brightest star in the galaxy, he dispelled those doubts today by appearing on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel to declare that "everything is normal" in Tripoli even as news outlets reported on growing signs that the Qaddafi family is losing its grip on Libya.
Earlier this week, Seif had invited foreign journalists to the Libyan capital so they could see for themselves just how wonderfully the Qaddafis were handling what he downplayed as the work of foreign-backed, pill-popping Al Qaeda terrorists bent on Libya's destruction.
But correspondents for both Al Arabiya and the New York Times, two news outlets that took up his invitation, managed to break away for their minders and report that all was not, in fact, under control.
The Times' David Kirkpatrick "discovered blocks of the city in open revolt" and spoke with eyewitnesses who told of "snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll." Al Arabiya reported that Qaddafi's security forces appeared to be abandoning Tripoli's streets to the rebels. And the Associated Press relayed word that the Libyan regime "passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints Saturday and sent armed patrols roving the terrorized capital."
Recent reports from eastern Libya, where Western news organizations have had correspondents for days now, make it clear that the Qaddafis have lost control of everywhere east of Ajbadiya, some 850 kilometers from Tripoli, while the opposition has held onto Misurata, the country's third-largest city, and is closing in on the capital from the west as well. The Qaddafis still have plenty of firepower in Sirt, their home base, and in Tripoli, but their room for maneuver is shrinking rapidly.
So, what was Seif thinking?
Perhaps he thought that the regime really could control the flow of information, present a cleaned-up Potemkin village inside the capital, and earn some goodwill from foreign news organizations by appearing to be cooperative. But nobody's buying the spin, and newspapers and satellite channels have become extremely sophisticated in how they leverage citizen networks in difficult reporting environments. Libyans inside the country are still, miraculously, risking their lives to take gritty cell-phone videos and upload them to Facebook or other social networking sites, where Libyan exiles pick them up, translate and provide context, and pass them along to a broader audience. Activists and journalists have been using tools like Skype to communicate directly with sources in and around Tripoli, and then spreading the news quickly on Twitter.
So, even if Kirkpatrick were stuck being driven around by government minders who only showed him what they wanted him to see, his colleagues in Benghazi and Cairo would still be able to get the real story from brave Libyan eyewitnesses who want the world to hear their story.
Unfortunately for Seif, Kirkpatrick managed to go a step beyond that and even managed to speak with some anti-Qaddafi folks in person:
[A]t another stop, in the neighborhood of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and random force.
A middle-age business owner, who identified himself only as Turkey, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward the capital’s central Green Square. He said the police had dispersed the crowd with tear gas and then bullets, killing a man named Issa Hatey. [...]
Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up now, after living under Colonel Qaddafi for 42 years, Mr. Turkey, 46, shrugged. “No one can tell the time,” he said. After forty years of pressure, “you explode.” Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died on Friday, and he said they expected another big protest on Sunday.
It seems hard to imagine the regime can hold out much longer, given how quickly the information walls are coming down, but let's not forget that the Qaddafis have said repeatedly and emphatically that they will fight to the death. Their loyalists have every reason to believe that the rebels -- who say they are preparing to march on Tripoli and liberate the city even if it takes "pilots who are ready to crash their planes in a suicidal way" -- will exact furious retribution after 42 years of tyranny. Expect them to go down swinging.
It's hard to imagine that a Vogue editor woke up this morning and decided it wouldn't be hugely embarrassing to publish a puff piece today, at the moment of the greatest upheaval in the Middle East in two generations, about Syria's ruling family. But that appears to be exactly what happened.
The article does not once mention the protests currently under way in the Middle East, including scattered evidence of demonstrations in Syria. Instead, the article focuses on Syrian first lady Asma Assad -- the "freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," endowed with "[d]ark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace." At a time when other Middle Eastern first ladies, notably Tunisia's Leila Trabelsi, have been the target of protesters' wrath, this may not be the wisest moment for Asma to flaunt her glamour.
One can only assume that the Assads agreed to be interviewed for this piece before the current outbreak of unrest made it embarrassing for both for them, and for Vogue. Still, some of the damage done to the Assads is self-inflicted. In one anecdote, Asma pays a visit to one of the centers run by her NGO, Massar, in the Syrian port city of Latakia -- and promptly lies to the assembled schoolchildren about closing the foundation.
Then she throws out a curve ball. 'I’ve been advised that we have to close down this center so as to open another one somewhere else,' she says. Kids’ mouths drop open. Some repress tears. Others are furious. One boy chooses altruism: 'That’s OK. We know how to do it now; we’ll help them.'
Then the first lady announces, 'That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar.'
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images.
It took a little under a month for Tunisians -- with a vital assist from their military -- to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak went from pillar of stability to disgraced ex-president in just 18 days.
Now, as we enter a seventh day of protests and armed street battles raging across Libya, the unimaginable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi suddenly seems very imaginable indeed.
So far, ant-government demonstrators have more or less taken over major cities in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the country's second-largest. The uprising has been bloody: Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 233 people have died, and probably more.
Last night, events seemed to reach a tipping point, as representatives of several large tribes voiced their support for the rebels and several diplomats -- including Libya's envoy to the Arab League and its No. 2 man in China -- resigned in protest.
Then, as protesters reportedly thronged Tripoli's Green Square and marched on Qaddafi's compound, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the ruler, appeared on state television, dressed in a black suit and tie and slouching in front of a green map of Africa.
In a bizarre, apparently off-the-cuff speech, Seif accused the protesters of receiving foreign help and seeking to set up "Islamic emirates" in eastern Libya -- that is, when they weren't doing LSD and working with African mercenaries. Warning of a "civil war" in the making, he vowed to fight "until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."
Many things still aren't clear in Libya, where rumors are flying fast and furious and foreign journalists aren't able to operate. Last night, there was a rumor going around Twitter that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela; Caracas denied it. Another story had it that Seif had been shot by his brother Mutassim, who as the national security advisor theoretically controls large parts of the security apparatus.
Seif's speech was certainly crazy, but he may be right about one thing: There is a nasty internecine conflict on the way in Libya. From all that we've seen, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons. It doesn't look like there will be a nice, friendly "let's all hold hands and clean up Tahrir Square" moment. After four decades of unspeakable tyranny, Libyans will be out for vengeance.
For those interested in following events in Libya on Twitter, I've made a list of key sources to follow. Please bear in mind, however, that much of what goes around in hearsay and unconfirmed rumor -- much of it no doubt wrong. Unfortunately, it's the best information we have to go on right now. I'll keep adding good feeds to the list as I find them, and feel free to recommend your own.
Revolutionaries in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, have taken over a radio station and are broadcasting their message on the Internet. Benghazi has long been a center of dissent against the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya with a mercurial iron fist for more than four decades.
While it's hard to know what's going on in Libya given the difficulties in reporting there -- the country has no independent press to speak of, basically zero civil society, and is not at all welcoming to foreign journalists -- Libyan exiles have been working hard to get the word out.
The radio commentary itself is gripping, with breathless amateur announcers calling on the international media to cover what "the criminal Qaddafi" is doing and warning fellow Libyans about "foreign mercenaries."
"This is an Arab revolution not just a Libyan revolution. This is a Muslim revolution," I heard one announcer say.
Perhaps the best source in English is the Libya February 17 blog, which is posting videos and short dispatches sourced to Twitter. What seems clear so far is that the government's response to widespread and growing protests has been brutal, with reports of at least 24 deaths so far and likely many more. This is not going to be the kind of peaceful revolution that I witnessed in Cairo.
On June 29, 1996, the Libyan regime of Moammar al-Qaddafi put down a prison revolt with deadly force, killing as many as 1,200 detainees in cold blood with grenades and machine guns. Their bodies have never been found, and the Libyan government has never fully admitted the massacre at Abu Salim Prison, despite the best efforts of witnesses and human rights organizations to document it in grim detail.
Fifteen years later, relatives of the victims are still demanding justice. On Feb. 15, 2 days ahead of a planned nationwide day of protests, the Libyan regime arrested Fatih Tarbel, an advocate for the Abu Salim families -- sparking outraged demonstrations in the coastal city of Benghazi. The BBC says the crowd was about 2,000 people, and activists on Twitter claim that at least 2 people have died.
It's not easy to report in Libya, and details of the protests remain sketchy and hard to confirm. It hasn't helped that some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, have confused what are doubtless orchestrated pro-Qaddafi protests with the genuine outpouring of anger against one of the world's most odious regimes (at one point, Qaddafi himself even said he might demonstrate against the prime minister).
While it's not clear how far the unrest might spread, the mere fact that people are lifting up their heads in a brutal police state like Libya is an incredible testament to human courage. And the swift fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in next-door Tunisia is a reminder that even the toughest regimes can prove surprisingly brittle once that mantle of fear is lifted.
The scene in Cairo's Tahrir Square had an aura of finality today, as volunteers dismantled barricades and checkpoints, began packing up their blankets and tents, and prepared to go home. Crowds of Egyptians strolled the square, many of them looking more like tourists as they gawked at the scene of last week's intense battles and took pictures with soldiers and bandaged-up protesters. Others -- some wearing signs saying "Sorry for Disturbance. We Build Egypt" and "Enter Egypt in Peace and Safety" -- brought out brooms, dustpans, and trash bags, sweeping away the piles of garbage and dust that had accumulated over the siege of the past three weeks.
Mohamed Azzam, 33, an unemployed high school graduate, was ebullient about President Hosni Mubarak's departure: "For 7,000 years, we haven't had freedom."
But while Mubarak may have left the scene, the revolution is not quite over.
In its statement this afternoon, the military council that is now governing the country stopped well short of signaling a full transition to democracy. The existing cabinet, for one thing, will stay on for now (one exception is Information Minister Anas el-Fiky, who was reportedly arrested while trying to flee the country). The military did say it would oversee a return to an elected civilian government, but it also urged Egyptians to cooperate with the police -- a despised institution that retains broad, unaccountable powers under Mubarak's emergency law.
Ahmed Naguib, a spokesman for the core group of organizers in Tahrir Square, said glumly that the military's statement was "not a good start." The organizing committee planned to tell people to go home, he said, but would ask the protesters to return to the square every Friday until all of their demands were met. "At least they could have named a new prime minister," he said.
According to the coalition of youth groups who helped staged the "January 25 revolution," as it is now widely being called here, there is still a long way to go. At a press conference at the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo, representatives of several of them -- including the April 6 Youth Movement, the Justice and Freedom Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth -- laid out their objectives: an end to the emergency law, an interim government of national unity, an anti-corruption drive, accountability for the abuses and violence by police forces and armed thugs over the last few weeks, the immediate release of all political detainees, the dissolution of parliament, complete freedom of the press and association, and committee to write a new constitution.
Mohamed Abbas, 26, said that the youth coalition had begun indirect talks with the military Friday, though he declined to comment on the discussions. Ahmed Maher, the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, said that it was "just the beginning" of the political process and that the protesters had to "keep the pressure" on in order to ensure a transition to an elected civilian government and a new constitution. He said that Ahmed Zewail, an eminent Egyptian-American scientist, was negotiating with the Army on their behalf.
Back in the square, Abdelaziz Abdel Qadr, a 30-year-old Arabic teacher and Muslim Brotherhood supporter, said, "The ball is in the Army's court."
Osama Khalil, a 37-year-old English teacher who had been manning the barricades in Tahrir Square since Jan. 28, said he wasn't leaving until all of the protesters' demands were met. "We don't trust anybody."
Typos corrected, 1:04 p.m., Feb. 14, 2011
Today, here in Cairo, the action began shifting outside Tahrir Square, which remains occupied by thousands of prostesters who insist they won't leave until their demands -- above all the removal of President Hosni Mubarak -- are met.
Vice President Omar Suleiman met with an array of youth activists and opposition figures, among them top members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a lot of conflicting reports flying around about the talks, and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei wasn't invited to what he called an "opaque" gathering. (His brother Ali emails: "[Omar Suleiman] said he would not talk to Dr. ElBaradei according to the Washington Post because he is not part of the opposition. It just shows how fake and futile this whole process is.")
Suleiman released a carefully crafted statement afterwards that fell well short of meeting the protesters' bottom line, and once again blamed "foreign elements" for stirring up all this trouble. I haven't watched state TV today, but foreign journalists are still being harrassed by plainclothes police types going in and out of Tahrir Square, and Al Jazeera English superstar Ayman Mohyeldin was detained for a few hours today with his hands behind his back, according to fellow journalist Ashraf Khalil.
There's a lot of wiggle room in Suleiman's words, notably in his insistence that "the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society" -- the same kind of thing the regime has been saying for the last three decades. Under Egypt's emergency laws, the police can pretty much grab anyone anytime they want, without any real accountability. (For a spot-on description of how the system really works on the ground, read this excellent account by Frederick Bowie.)
Another item, "Media and communications will be liberalized and no extra-legal constraints will be imposed on them," provides no mechanism for ensuring that the commanding heights of the media here -- state television -- will be able to evolve into something resembling objective journalism rather than propaganda. And in an ominous sign of new restrictions yet to come, Internet watchers reported today that Egypt had dramatically data uploads, presumbly to choke off the posting of damning videos from the last few weeks and preserve the ability to do so in the future.
There's no talk of any oversight of the police and security services -- the so-called deep state that has been brutalizing Egyptians for more than 50 years. Perhaps such issues will be addressed by the committee being set up to "study and recommend constitutional amendments, and legislative amendments of laws complimentary to the constitution," but again -- there are no guarantees that the government will take up these "recommendations," or that the committee will include real democrats instead of the usual toadies and hacks.
It's also worth noting that Suleiman has already violated one of the pledges he made, to "immediately release prisoners of conscience of all persuasions." Google executive Wael Ghonim, who has been missing for well over a week now, is mysteriously to be released tomorrow at 4 p.m., according to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Why not now? And without a complete overhaul of the legal system -- the emergency laws especially -- there's nothing to stop him and others from being arbitrarily detained once again.
No question, the protesters have won some important victories: Mubarak and his son are finished in Egyptian politics, and a number of the most corrupt party figures have been cashiered. Tens of thousands of young Egyptians have risked their lives and their livelihoods and inspired the entire world with their courage (this incredible footage of last Friday's epic battle on Qasr el-Nil bridge leading into the square gives you a taste of it). One of the most common phrases you hear in Tahrir Square is "we've regained our dignity" -- the protesters are enormously proud of what they've done, and rightly so.
But there are no signs that the regime is willing to concede any fundamental authority, and plenty of signs that it is trying to tire and isolate the protesters politically, divide opposition movements and groups in order to weaken them, and stall for time in the hopes of going back to business as usual.
Meanwhile, the United States -- perhaps due to inflated fears of an Islamist takeover -- seems willing to preside over the installation of yet another military strongman in Egypt, proving that the cynicism about America that is widely shared on the Egyptian street isn't too far from the mark.
In a seeming tactical victory for the thousands of protesters still occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square, top members of Egypt's ruling party resigned Saturday, according to Egyptian state television.
Safwat el-Sherif, the widely reviled chief of the National Democratic Party, is out, to be replaced by Hossam al-Badrawy, a doctor who was previously the party's secretary for business. Gone, too, is Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, as well as the other four members of the Steering Committee that runs the NDP.
Protesters were clearly not satisfied by the announcement.
"It's a good step, a good tactical gain for the protest movement," said Ghad Party secretary-general Wael Nawara, calling instead for the full dissolution of the NDP. "So far they have not responded to any of our demands," he said. "Instead they have been sacrificing scapegoats."
"It's just a game," said Magdy Soliman, 38, a software engineer who supports former International Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change. "They're all criminals. From the same gang." (A longtime Egyptian democracy advocate who knows Badrawy well said he was "pretty decent" in comparison to other party figures and had tried to reform the NDP from within, albeit to little discernable effect.)
The news came amid reports, sourced to U.S. and Egyptian officials, that Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman "was exploring a transition of power in which President Hosni Mubarak would give up presidential powers but remain a figurehead until elections are held."
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has formally backed "a gradual transition" that would involve Suleiman supervising fresh elections in September as Mubarak informally cedes power but does not leave outright.
A group of prominent Egyptians calling itself the "Council of the Wise" is trying to mediate a similar solution between the government and protest leaders, though it's doubtful many of the demonstrators Tahrir Square will accept anything less than Mubarak's outright resignation.
Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department at Cairo University who is in touch with many opposition figures, worried that the loose coalition of groups calling for Mubarak's ouster don't have a coherent game plan. "There is no strategy. Every group has its own perception of the situation, its own dynamics, but I don't think there is any common strategy. They want Mubarak to leave or delegate authority but differ on how to achieve that."
Meanwhile, Mubarak was shown on state television Saturday presiding over a meeting of his economic advisors, and he remains head of the NDP. A number of journalists and activists remain missing, including the bureau chief of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, presumably swept up by the Egyptian regime's still very active and brutal security apparatus. "There's a new game in town and we don't know the rules," said one Cairo-based analyst whose organization had come under severe pressure in recent days.
At Tahrir Square today, the army took a firmer hand, sending elite reinforcements, manning checkpoints, and pushing protesters to move their makeshift barricades inward. A top Army general appeared and urged the protesters to go home, telling them he respected their right to speak out but said that they were damaging the Egyptian economy.
Outside the area around the square, traffic surged as life began returning to normal. State television appeared to be toning down what Nawara described as a "campaign of terror and xenophobia against foreigners," though the overall depiction of the protesters as wide-eyed radicals bent on destroying Egypt -- with the help of Iran, Israel, and Qatar, no less -- remained in place.
"Given the events of the past 48 hours, the best possible scenario is a slightly more open authoritarian regime. Egypt's democratic moment was thwarted this time," said Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University.
Greetings from the center of the world.
I'm in Cairo, Egypt, where thousands of protesters remain holed up in Tahrir Square in the heart of this city's decaying Beaux-Arts downtown, fighting pitched street battles with pro-regime thugs and defiantly refusing to buckle under, give up, and go home.
I arrived here this afternoon at around 2:30 p.m., after a surprisingly quick ride in from the airport. I found a city that looked largely as it did back in 2005 and 2006, when I lived here as an Arabic student, wannabe journalist, and democracy activist.
There are, of course, some important differences. Commerce has ground to a halt. Army vehicles now dot the major arteries into the city -- I counted at least five armored personnel carriers and five tanks on the way in to downtown -- and the area around Tahrir Square shows the signs of a weeklong siege. There are burned-out wrecks and makeshift barricades at major entrances, which are halfheartedly manned by Army troops. To enter, one must show ID -- presumably one that doesn't say "I'm a police spy" -- and submit to one or more enthusiastic pat-downs by (polite) volunteer guards. But once you're inside, it's generally peaceful, as the raging rock fight near the Egyptian Museum is at the far end of the square, perhaps a quarter-mile away from the main roundabout.
Speaking by phone from Cairo, Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork told me that he is alarmed by the U.S. media coverage portraying the clashes on the streets as spats between "rival protesters" -- citizens who have two different visions of the future of Egypt:
"These are not rival factions. This is brown-shirt tactics. This is the government sending in people -- whether they are paid or not is a very subsidiary question -- sending in thugs armed with knives, stones, sticks, to attack the pro-democracy protesters, who were there in an entirely peaceful manner."
Asked how we can be sure that the pro-government crowds had been sent by the government, Stork cited several bits of evidence, having been in Tahrir Square when the fighting erupted this morning: People he spoke to there mentioned young men being paid as much as $500 to fight for the regime; others who were caught looting were later found to have IDs indicating that they were members of the Ministry of the Interior-controlled security service.
Were this a rival protest, they could easily have gone to one of the many other public squares in Egypt. Instead, the Army began "letting people in [to the square] today who had mayhem on their minds." "Any one of these things is circumstantial," he explained, "but altogether" the conclusion is clear.
Today's crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it's surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word "thug" to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I'm skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak's Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak's regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.
If it's hard to imagine that the "thugs" are motivated by ideological conviction -- Mubarak had no basis on which to indoctrinate a Basij or Revolutionary Guard -- it's easy to imagine they're acting out of self-interest and fear. The Egyptian military seems to have a place reserved for itself in whatever new order emerges. But who can say the same for the country's security services? When Egypt's emergency laws are eventually rescinded, who will have use for people practiced in torturing their fellow citizens? The people wielding machetes in Tahrir Square probably have a hazy vision of a future Egypt in search of scapegoats. And they know that there won't be a plane waiting to bring them out of the country, like there will be for Mubarak.
At 11:29 a.m. Cairo time, Egypt's Internet roared back to life Wednesday after more than five days of darkness, and a cacophony of Egyptian voices returned to Twitter, Facebook, and various other social-networking sites to express their anger over last night's speech by President Hosni Mubarak.
The immediate reason for the blackout's end seemed to be the Army's call for demonstrators to return their homes, a message sent to thousands of Egyptian mobile subscribers.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Mubarak supporters hit the streets of Cairo in an ominous sign that the regime was determined to hang on and perhaps exact a measure of vengeance for its humiliation over the last week. Many Egyptian tweeters claimed that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were motivated by money or were government employees and security forces forced to be there against their will. While Mubarak undoubtedly retains some measure of support, nobody thinks these demos are spontaneous expressions of popular sentiment.
Several news organizations -- CNN, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and ABC News, among others -- reported being assaulted or otherwise intimidated by the pro-Mubarak groups, thousands of whom entered Cairo's Tahrir Square shortly before 2 p.m. local time. Lara Setrakian tweeted that it was a "dangerous and combustible situation" in the square, with both sides squaring off against each other and chanting opposing slogans. There are similar reports of clashes in Alexandria.
So now we see the regime's strategy emerging: concede Mubarak's sixth term, divide and conquer the opposition and buy some off with concessions, and send its thugs to intimidate the remaining protesters into going home. The government has made no promises to revoke the hated Emergency Law, and it seems that Mubarak's "constitional reform" will be aimed at allowing his new deputy, Omar Suleiman, to contest this fall's presidential election.
The Wall Street Journal also cleared up a major mystery, shedding some light on the sudden disappearance of the police last Friday:
At 4 p.m., the battles appeared to tip decisively in the protesters' favor. An order came down from Mr. Mubarak to the Minister of Interior, Habib al-Adly to use live ammunition to put down the protests, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Mr. al-Adly passed on the order to his top lieutenant, Gen. Ahmed Ramzy—but Mr. Ramzy refused, according to this person.
"It was a poor assessment of what [orders] his generals would take from him," this person said.
When Mr. Mubarak saw that Mr. Adly wouldn't get the job done, he gave the order for the army to deploy, this person said. Mr. Adly was furious, according to the person. Mr. Adly then gave a sweeping order to pull all police from the streets, from lowly traffic monitors, to prison guards, to the vast armies of truncheon-wielding riot police that had been a ubiquitous presence around Egypt for decades.
"That withdrawal was a disastrous mistake," said Fuad Allam, a former commander of the country's internal security forces. "You just can't do that."
The deployment orders caught the military by surprise, according to soldiers.
"No one expected it," a junior officer said on Monday. "The order came and four hours later we were on the streets."
This story offers a slight twist on the going rope-a-dope theory -- that Mubarak ordered the police to disappear in order to create enough chaos to scare middle- and upper-class Egyptians into supporting a return of order and stability. In the WSJ's version, which seems very well sourced, it was the Interior Minstry itself that launched this strategy in a bid to show Mubarak that it was still essential to his regime.
This could get very ugly indeed. As I write, pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators look like they are about to rumble in Tahrir Square. The results could be very bloody -- just as Mubarak & co. intend.
UPDATE: It has indeed gotten bloody, with pitched battles in the square between the two sides. In a surreal moment, pro-Mubarak thugs rode into the square atop horses, camels, and donkeys. I am not joking. More later.
As hundreds of thousands of angry protesters mobbed downtown Cairo to denounce his 30-year rule, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delivered an utterly unapologetic speech Tuesday evening, vowing to safeguard his country's stability and security while announcing that he would not seek a 6th term.
Defending his record and saying he would "die on Egyptian soil," Mubarak indicated that he he had no intention of following the example of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and fleeing ignominiously into exile.
Almost immediately, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square renewed their calls for his ouster, rejecting his bid to remain in office for another few months. It seems that Mubarak has made yet another mistake, one that may ultimately lead him to share Ben Ali's fate. So what were his biggest blunders?
1. Failing to spread the wealth. Egypt's economy as a whole has grown by a respectable amount, but most Egyptians don't feel they've gotten their fair share. Instead, they see wealthy businessman with ties to the ruling National Democratic Party stealing the country's riches.
2. Allowing corruption to pervade Egyptian life. If there's one thing Egyptians complain about, it's the grand and petty corruption that makes it nearly impossible for anyone in the country to make an honest living. Getting anything done requires a bribe (the infamous baksheesh) and/or connections (wasta), and high-level embezzlement is rampant.
3. The vision thing. Say what you want about Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, but Mubarak's two predecessors knew where they wanted to take the country and had a plan for getting there. Nasser wanted to create a pan-Arab union under the banner of socialism and non-alignment, while Sadat sought to regain Egypt's martial pride before making peace with Israel and joining the West. As for Mubarak, what does he offer Egyptians? Crumbling infrastructure, decaying socio-economic conditions, and utter fealty to the United States.
4. Half-hearted reforms. Egyptians have grown rightly cynical at their-government's on-again off-again reform efforts, characterized by unpersuasive propaganda or Orwellian doublespeak. When they hear the word "reform," Egyptians look for the catch, such as the constitutional amendment that more or less bars independent candidates from contesting the presidency.
5. Grooming Gamal. If there's one thing nearly all Egyptians agree on, it's that they don't want to be ruled by Mubarak's British-educated son. Over the last decade, Gamal played an increasingly visible role in setting domestic policy, tying his fortunes to unpopular liberal economic reforms and wealthy businessmen who are seen as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary Egyptians. Some of the most popular chants at demonstrations in recent years were variants of "No to inheritence!"
6. Underestimating the activists. Clearly, the Interior Ministry and the police were not prepared for the surge of protesters that first hit the streets on January 25. Accustomed to small demonstrations organized by Egypt's utterly inept, fractious opposition parties, the security forces clearly expected more of the same. But the organizers behind the current uprising are networked, tech-savvy young people who obviously know how to connect with their audience and get the word out. They're not from the political parties. The police were clearly rocked back on their heels, exhausted, and outmaneuvered last Friday -- and that's when the army had to step in.
7. Cheating too much. In most of the parliamentary contests during his 30 year reign, Mubarak has allowed a token number of seats to go to opposition parties. But in the 2010 elections, the NDP's rigging got out of control, leaving only a handful of seats for the coopted Wafd Party. The Muslim Brotherhood was shut out, leaving it with no stake in the government and the patronage opportunities that go along with representation in parliament.
8. Sending in the thugs. After the police forces mysteriously dissolved Friday, reports came streaming in of looters attacking people in the streets, breaking into shops and homes, and otherwise intimidating ordinary Egyptians. Many of these thugs were found to be carrying police or state security IDs. If Mubarak's hope was to drive the middle class back into the loving arms of the state, it seems he badly miscalculated -- the protests have only gotten bigger since then.
9. Bringing in his cronies. Despite his Friday speech vowing to enact various unspecified political and constitutional reforms, Mubarak named his spy chief Omar Suleiman his vice president, dumped his cabinet, and named a retired Air Force general as his prime minister. Opposition leaders and analysts rightly interpreted this as a sign of business as usual.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, and I imagine Mubarak will make a few more major mistakes in the days ahead. What do you all think he got wrong? Please weigh in below.
Sitting at my desk in Washington, scanning the latest photos from Tahrir Square streaming in and reading live blogs that pull together the latest disparate strands of information, I can't help but wonder whether I know more about the protests happening in Cairo than the reporters who are actually there. That's how I sometimes felt, at least, when I was in Tehran in 2009 covering the Iranian presidential elections and their alternately inspiring and bloody aftermath. Observing an incipient revolution on the ground wasn't always clarifying so much as it was harrowing and confusing and exhausting.
I wonder how much work reporters in Egypt have had to devote to mitigating the dangers and intimidation suddenly associated with their jobs. The Iranian government rescinded all press passes the day after the 2009 election and were eager to arrest journalists thereafter on charges of espionage: it seems that in the early days of the Egyptian protests, security services were similarly targeting journalists, though that may no longer be an issue. I'd guess that only a fraction of the correspondents in Cairo right now are credentialed, but the Egyptian government seems to have deteriorated to such a point that there's probably little danger involved in filing stories.
But that begs the question of how to file at all after the government's shut down all Internet and mobile phone communications. It's easy to feel adrift when the modern correspondent's toolkit of laptop, cell phone and digital camera is suddenly and completely rendered useless. Any reporter worth his or her salt is going to find a way to get the story out, but it may involve risks that aren't calculated in advance. When the adrenaline subsides, paranoia can begin to cloud one's thoughts. Am I being monitored? Which of these protesters I'm interviewing are actually plainclothes police? The technological isolation also produces a certain practical myopia: it's hard to know if you're ever reporting at the right place at the right time.
But there are advantages to myopia as well. On the ground, reporters can observe the motley collection of personal motivations being expressed in these public events. The political upshot of the Green Revolution was to challenge the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. But the individual protesters I encountered were most often motivated by a longing for dignity, a concept that is not strictly political: many told me about their economic frustrations, others about grievances against the regime that they had harbored for years or decades, still others told me they were seeking to test their manhood. No one mentioned geopolitics, or the support or lack thereof of President Obama. (Who would choose to risk their lives for the sake of the president of another country?) Outside observers inevitably see too much of themselves and their own ideas in these stories.
It's clear that the Egyptians have done something politically momentous, but that doesn't mean they calculated its political import. Before we interpret what the Egyptians have done, we should try to listen to what they have to say, even -- especially -- if it's not yet what we want to hear.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
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