If, like me, you are obsessively following the unfolding drama in Egypt, there's no better medium than Twitter, where you can get 140-character dispatches from foreign journalists and Egyptians on the ground (at least, those that still somehow have Internet access), as well as curators and analysts watching the action from afar. Here are some, but by no means all, of my proven providers (it's also light on Egyptians right now since few seem to have Internet access at the moment):
Abeer Allam - Egyptian-born FT correspondent in Riyadh
Sandmonkey - Foul-mouthed Egyptian blogger
Hossam El-Hamalawy - Blogger and labor activist
Alaa Abd Al Fattah - Blogger and tech activist based in South Africa
Gamal Eid - Human rights activist
Khaled Abol Naga - Egyptian actor
Sharif Kouddous - Egyptian-American producer for Democracy Now
Ramy Raoof - Human rights activist and blogger
Gigi Ibrahim - Socialist activist
Amr El Beleidy - Travel writer cum activist
Mo-ha-med - Economic consultant
Zeinobia - Egyptian blogger
Journos on the ground:
Al Arabiya - Breaking news from the Arab satellite network
Ashraf Khalil - top-notch senior journalist for Al-Masry Al-Youm
Issandr Amrani - dean of the Cairo press corps
Ben Wedemann - veteran Middle East correspondent for CNN
Nic Robertson - CNN reporter in Alexandria
Frederick Pleitgen - CNN reporter in Cairo
Jan25voices - phoned-in tweets from Egypt
Curators and analysts:
Sultan al-Qassemi - columnist for Abu Dhabi's the National
Brian Whitaker - Guardian editor
Katherine Maher - tech and civil society expert with the National Democratic Institute
Dan Murphy - Christian Science Monitor journalist, former Cairo correspondent
Michael Wahid Hanna - Century Foundation analyst
Steve Cook - CFR analyst
Pomed Wire - Project on Middle East Democracy
Marc Lynch - FP blogger, GW professor
Daniel Serwer - Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace
Max Fisher - Atlantic editor
Andy Carvin - Senior strategist at NPR
Tom Gara - Quick-witted financial journalist living in Dubai, Egypt experience
Joshua Stacher - Professor at Kent State University with extensive knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood
Nasser Weddady - Mauritanian activist living in Boston
Ammar Abdulhamid - Syrian activist living in Washington
Jacob Appelbaum - Cyberactivist monitoring the Egyptian Internet
Kim Ghatttas - BBC State Department correspondent
In a few minutes, according to Al Arabiya, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will speak and offer a "solution" to his country's unrest -- perhaps by agreeing not to run in this September's upcoming presidential election. Such an announcement would be an epic moment for the Middle East, and for Mubarak, who once said he would serve as Egypt's president "until my last breath."
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that U.S. President Barack Obama -- through retired diplomat Frank Wisner -- has told Mubarak he shouldn't run again:
Mr. Wisner’s message, [American diplomats in Cairo and Washington] said, was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader. [...]
His mission was to “keep a conversation going,” according to a close friend of Mr. Wisner’s.
As a result, this person said, the administration’s first message to the Egyptian leader was not that he had to leave office, but rather that his time in office was quickly coming to a close. Mr. Wisner, who consulted closely with the White House, is expected to be the point person to deal with Mr. Mubarak as the situation evolves, and perhaps as the administration’s message hardens.
More to come soon, but my strong hunch is that the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square will be satisfied by nothing less than Mubarak's ouster. The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl relayed via Twitter that Mubarak actually refused Wisner's counsel, and the LA Times quotes a source saying that Wisner's message was "plainly rebuffed."
If it's indeed true that Mubarak is announcing that he won't seek a 6th term -- and nobody other than Al Arabiya is reporting that right now [UPDATE: Now Egyptian state TV says it will be a statement, not a speech] -- it's more than a little awkward that U.S. officials have already leaked his decision to the New York Times. Not that I have much sympathy for the old tyrant, but I don't think the Obama team wants to be seen dictating the course of events.
That said, if Mubarak does indeed announce his retirement tonight, you can expect some fingerpointing at Obama for "losing" a key U.S. ally, thanklessly "throwing him under the bus," and so on.
I wonder if the people making that argument will have the courage to spell out what itimplies: They would have preferred to see the Egyptian police and military kill and injure more peaceful demonstrators on the streets of a major Arab capital, on international satellite television, using U.S.-made weapons.
Because let's be honest: that's what it would have taken for Mubarak to remain in power. His military was refusing to enforce a curfew or fire on protesters; his police had mysteriously fled after brutally attacking them. The morality of this position aside, can you imagine the kind of blowback the United States would face in the Arab world, let alone everywhere else?
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
With the announcement today of his new cabinet, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all but confirmed that he sees the current unrest sweeping across his country primarily as a security matter, not an issue that demands political reform.
Let's look at his appointments. His new vice president is Omar Suleiman, his longtime spy chief, a man distinguished by his unstinting loyalty to the boss. The new prime minister is Ahmed Shafiq, an Air Force veteran who previously ran the civil aviation ministry. The new interior minister, retired police general Mahmoud Wagdy, last ran Egypt's vast prison system. This is not a government of reformers.
In fact, the reformers -- Ahmed Nazif, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Youssef Boutros-Ghali -- won't be in the new government. Although Al Arabiya reported that the latter two ministers refused to join, it's also possible that Mubarak wanted to send a signal that he blamed their economic liberalization policies for stirring up unrest.
What's clear is that Mubarak's son Gamal, who was close to the technocrats and was widely thought to have been angling for the presidency, is finished in Egyptian politics. Nobody has seen him for days, and there are rumors that he's fled to London along with his mother Suzanne and brother Alaa.
The other half of Mubarak's strategy is to scare Egypt's upper and middle classes into demanding a return of stability. On Friday, police forces mysteriously disappeared and thousands of prisoners suddenly escaped from several facilities. Reports of chaos and looting in the streets dominated state television, while the army did little to provide security beyond protecting government buildings. Neighborhoods have set up local watch groups, grabbing makeshift weapons like kitchen knives, baseball bats, and even, I saw in one report, lacrosse sticks.
Will it work? I doubt it. Mubarak's legitimacy seems utterly depleted. Ordinarily, the regime would stage counterdemonstrations to show that it still has support. On Sunday, a host on Al Jazeera English challenged Mohamed Ragab, a backbencher from the ruling party, to back up his claim that "millions and millions" of Egyptians still support Mubarak. He couldn't do it.
The opposition has called for a million-man show of strength in downtown Cairo Tuesday, while the regime has shut down the train system in what looks like a desperate attempt to deny the protesters reinforcements. But Cairo is a city of 20 million people, many of whom are already defying the military's half-hearted attempts to enforce a 3 p.m. curfew tonight. Tomorrow's demonstrations could be truly huge.
Hosni may indeed limp along for a little while longer. But I doubt anyone is betting that he'll be there for the long haul.
UPDATE: The Egyptian army has issued an unusual statement saying it "will not resort to use of force against our great people."
"Your armed forces," the statement continued, "who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."
A lot of people are interpreting this as the army signaling that it is with the protesters and against Mubarak. I think that may be premature, but only slightly. Suleiman just appeared on television and said the government would take a look at complaints about last fall's parliamentary elections -- another attempt to buy off more moderate demonstrators (and rather meaningless as most of the problems came in runoff elections between "official" NDP candidates and "unofficial" NDP candidates). Meanwhile, both the EU and the United States are now calling for a "transition" -- i.e. goodbye Hosni. But he's a stubborn old man. Let's see what happens tomorrow.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remarks with Spanish foreign minister, January 25:
QUESTION: [T]here are some major demonstrations in Egypt today, and I'm wondering if there is concern in Washington about the stability of the Egyptian Government, of course, a very valuable ally of the United States?
SECRETARY CLINTON: With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations. We know that they've occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we're monitoring that very closely. We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, January 25:
And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
White House press secretary statement, January 25:
As we monitor the situation in Egypt, we urge all parties to refrain from using violence, and expect the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.
More broadly, what is happening in the region reminds us that, as the President said in Cairo, we have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and free of corruption; and the freedom to live as you choose - these are human rights and we support them everywhere.
Clinton, remarks with Jordanian foreign minister, January 26:
SECRETARY CLINTON: Before I talk about our meeting today, I want to say a word about the protests taking place in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. As we monitor this situation carefully, we call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.
We believe strongly that the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals. As I said recently in Doha, people across the Middle East, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and have a role in the decisions that affect their lives. And as the President said in his State of the Union yesterday night, the United States supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
When I was recently in the region, I met with a wide range of civil society groups, and I heard firsthand about their ideas, which were aimed at improving their countries, of giving more space and voice to the aspirations for the future. We have consistently raised with the Egyptian Government over many years, as well as other governments in the region, the need for reform and greater openness and participation in order to provide a better life, a better future, for the people.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Madam Secretary, I'd like to follow up on your opening statement on Egypt. In Tunisia, the United States was quick to support the aspirations of the protestors. Will the United States support the aspirations of the Egyptian protestors? Mr. Minister, is Jordan worried about these protests spreading elsewhere in the region? Madam Secretary, there are reports already that Egypt has shut down Twitter and Facebook. Do you plan to bring this up with the Egyptian Government directly?
And if I may stay in the region on behalf of a colleague and go a little further south - (laughter) - to Sudan, your meeting later today with the foreign minister of Sudan. Is the United States ready at this point to take them off the terror list? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I hope I'm awake enough to remember all those questions.
FOREIGN MINISTER JUDEH: I remember mine.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Good, good. (Laughter.)
Well, first, let me say clearly the United States supports the aspirations of all people for greater freedom, for self-government, for the rights to express themselves, to associate and assemble, to be part of the full, inclusive functioning of their society. And of course, that includes the Egyptian people. I think that what the President said last night in the State of the Union applies not only to Tunisia, not only to Egypt, but to everyone. And we are particularly hopeful that the Egyptian Government will take this opportunity to implement political, economic, and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people. And we are committed, as we have been, to working toward that goal with Egyptian civil society, with the Egyptian Government, with the people of that great country.
With respect to the Egyptian Government, I do think it's possible for there to be reforms, and that is what we are urging and calling for. And it is something that I think everyone knows must be on the agenda of the government as they not just respond to the protest, but as they look beyond as to what needs to be done economically, socially, politically. And there are a lot of very well informed, active civil society leaders in Egypt who have put forward specific ideas for reform, and we are encouraging and urging the Egyptian Government to be responsive to that.
P.J. Crowley, press briefing, January 26:
QUESTION: P.J., on Egypt, are you aware of reports that a number of journalists have been detained, some of them roughed up, by Egyptian police in trying to cover the demonstrations? And if you are, what do you make of this?
MR. CROWLEY: We are aware that certain reporters have been detained, I think a couple of AP reporters in particular. We have raised this issue already with the ministry of foreign affairs and we will continue to monitor these cases until they are successfully resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And when you say you've raised the issue with the ministry of foreign affairs, does that mean you've said that you expect that these people will be released or that they will be treated well?
MR. CROWLEY: We are calling for the release of journalists, yes. Absolutely, and we will continue to raise this with the Egyptian Government if it is not quickly resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And then more broadly, the Egyptians say that they've arrested close to - I think it's close to a thousand people now. What about those people?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary made clear in her remarks earlier today, we believe it's vitally important for Egypt to respect the universal right of its people to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the right to peacefully protest. Our Ambassador, Margaret Scobey, had a meeting today with the Egyptian Government. She expressed our concern about the situation and the need for the Egyptian Government to demonstrate restraint. She also raised the issue of interference with social media. Internet freedom is just as important as a citizen's right to enter a city square or criticize the government without fear of reprisal.
QUESTION: When you say that Scobey met with the - who did she meet with?
MR. CROWLEY: She met with the Minister of State for Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab.
Goyal. Oh, I should mention one thing. Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman left Tunisia today. He's now in Paris conferring with his counterpart within the French Government. But he met today with civil society representatives and had a press conference with Tunisian media. And that's the latest on him as well.
QUESTION: Are there any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: Any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: I don't think so. I think he's coming back here tomorrow. I think there's a conference later this week on Iraq that he plans to attend.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. He's in Paris talking about what? About Lebanon or Tunisia?
MR. CROWLEY: He's meeting with his counterpart. I have no doubt that the bulk of the conversation will be on Lebanon.
QUESTION: Just on the reform issue with the Secretary this morning and the statement last night --
MR. CROWLEY: But yeah, I think he'll also talk about Tunisia.
QUESTION: -- was talking about that now's a good time for Mubarak maybe to move ahead with some reforms. And you talked broadly about the political, economic, social opportunity. Does the U.S. Government have any specific ideas about political reforms, which might improve the situation in Egypt, and are you making those suggestions to them?
MR. CROWLEY: This is a conversation that we've had with Egypt for some time. We do believe that political reform is important for Egypt, just as it's important for other countries in the region. We have long called for Egypt to create greater space for broader participation in its political process. Our concern and the fact that we have raised this issue with Egypt is longstanding, actually.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, press gaggle, January 26:
Q Robert, last night you issued a statement calling on the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful assembly. Today, as you've seen, they've banned gatherings and they've cracked down on Twitter and Facebook. What is your response to that? And my second question is, do you still back Hosni Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously we are monitoring quite closely the situation in Egypt and continue to do so, obviously, in Tunisia. You heard the President speak about universal rights last night in the State of the Union.
We continue to believe, first and foremost, that any of the parties -- all of the parties should refrain from violence. We support, as the President mentioned last night about the people of Tunisia, the universal rights of the people of Egypt. And this is an important time for the government to demonstrate its responsiveness to the people of Egypt in recognizing those universal rights.
So we're going to continue to monitor the situation. I got a couple updates very early this morning, and we'll try to get more as we go along the day.
Q But do you believe they should lift the ban on protests? Should they allow these demonstrations to go ahead as long as they're peaceful?
MR. GIBBS: Again, yes, we are supportive of the universal right for assembly and speech. Those are universal values.
Again, I think we would stress quite clearly, for all involved, that expression should be free of violence. Again, we're working with -- obviously we have a close and important ally in Egypt and they will continue to be.
Q And as you stand today, you still back President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Egypt is a strong ally.
Crowley, press briefing, January 27:
QUESTION: Egypt. Does the U.S. Government have any view about the return of former IAEA Director General Mohamed elBaradei to Egypt.
MR. CROWLEY: This is a matter for the Egyptian people and how they view his return.
QUESTION: Would you like to see more potential political candidates showing up in Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: We would like to see political reform in Egypt, as we've made clear for a number of years, and a broader opportunity for people to participate in the political process in Egypt. How that - what that actually means in terms of who might run for what office, that's, again, a matter for the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: Was there a particular significance to Secretary Clinton's language yesterday when she said that "Egypt had an opportunity for political, economic, and social reform at this moment in time"? Normally, your exhortations for political reforms in other countries, and particularly in Egypt, are much less specific in terms of time. Was she trying to signal a particular urgency because of the protests?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is actually not necessarily a new issue. We've had - this has been part -
QUESTION: I didn't say it was a new issue.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I know that. And -
QUESTION: Then why are you saying it's not a new issue? I didn't say it was, right?
MR. CROWLEY: Let me continue.
QUESTION: Please do.
MR. CROWLEY: This is an issue that we have talked at length with Egypt for quite some time. We have made investments over the years to try to help expand Egyptian civil society. Clearly, what you are seeing this week is very significant public protests in Egypt. As the Secretary made clear, we want to see Egyptian authorities allow and enable those protests to occur peacefully. We've also made clear that we want to make sure that there's no interference with the opportunity for the Egyptian people to use social media. But to the extent that we obviously see that, country by country across the region, people are watching what has happened in Tunisia, country by country, population by population, they are drawing lessons from what is happening.
Now, what happens going forward will be something that develops indigenously, country by country. We're not looking at this as - there's a regional dynamic, if you will, in the sense that many - as the Secretary said in her speech in Doha, across the region from the Middle East to North Africa, countries do face similar demographic challenges - young populations, highly educated, very motivated, looking for jobs, looking for opportunities, and quite honestly, frustrated by, depending on the country, what they see as a lack of opportunity. This is bringing more people out into streets. This is bringing forward public calls for a greater dialogue, greater opportunity. And the Secretary, given what we are seeing and observing in Egypt, was responding to current events.
QUESTION: So that phrase implies that she does indeed see a greater - see the need for reform with greater urgency because of the protests and violence?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, because of - everyone has been watching what's happening in Tunisia, drawing lessons from what's happening in Tunisia, it has created an opportunity. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Egypt. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Yemen. And we believe that governments need to take advantage of this opportunity to expand their dialogue with their populations and respond to the aspirations of their people.
QUESTION: Wouldn't you have preferred - I mean, presumably they've had this opportunity for many years, not just in the last three, four weeks. Wouldn't it have been better if these governments had taken advantage of this - of these important opportunities before blood was shed in the streets?
MR. CROWLEY: Well - and obviously, we deplore the deaths that have occurred among protesters and the security forces. I mean, I think we need to be careful here. Obviously, there is a dynamic that is underway within the region. But the - what happens from this point forward will rely on indigenous actions that happen country by country. The solution in Tunisia is not the solution in Egypt is not the solution in Yemen. And yet because people are observing what's happening, they're reacting to what's happening, it is an important moment for these countries to find ways to respond. And that was the message that the Secretary gave to leaders in Doha. And we're clearly seeing that there's an opportunity here, and it will be best for these countries if they actively respond at this time to obvious concerns and the voices of their people.
QUESTION: All right. And so you --
QUESTION: Are you simply telling the Egyptian Government that you need to reform to stay in power? Are you getting --
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: -- that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: This should happen because it's important for these countries to reform and evolve. This has not happened because we, the United States, are telling any country what to do. We see a dynamic in the region, as the Secretary said. The status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is not sustainable. The fact is that they have young populations that are looking for more than their respective countries and governments are currently giving them. And it is better for governments to respond when moments like this occur.
So we think that this can happen, change can happen, in a stable environment. In fact, if you look at Tunisia, even though protests do continue, in order to get to where the people of Tunisia want to go - to credible peaceful elections - you're going to have to have calm in society so that these events can be generated. Jeff Feltman is on his way back from Paris and will be looking at how can we contribute expertise to help build a credible process so the Tunisian people can have the opportunities - opportunity to influence their future. But obviously, it has to be a peaceful environment for things like this to occur.
QUESTION: P.J., that was a fine answer, but I'm not sure it was the answer to Lachlan's question. (Laughter.) His question was are you telling the Egyptian Government --
MR. CROWLEY: I heard fine answer.
QUESTION: Are you telling the Egyptian Government that they need to adopt reform? That was his question.
MR. CROWLEY: No, we're --
QUESTION: And - hold on a second. As the Secretary said yesterday --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as a friend, we're --
QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait --
MR. CROWLEY: We're offering our advice to Egypt. But what they do is up to them.
QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But what the Secretary said yesterday was reform must be on the agenda for the Egyptian Government. How is that not telling them that they should reform, enact reforms?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're giving Egypt and other countries our best advice.
QUESTION: Okay. So you are telling them that they should reform.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're - no, I didn't hear that. I thought - I thought was there a particular - was there something in particular that we wanted to see Egypt do.
QUESTION: I think the transcript will reflect that what Lachlan asked was: Are you urging the Egyptian Government to reform to stay in power?
QUESTION: That's correct.
MR. CROWLEY: This is not an either/or proposition. It's not up to us to determine who, in the future, will lead the people of Egypt. That is a choice for the people of Egypt. We want to see political, economic, and social reform that opens up the opportunity for Egyptian people, just as the people of other countries, to more significantly influence who will lead their country in the future and the direction of that country and the opportunities generated in that country.
QUESTION: Could you be a little more specific, like would you recommend that they hold elections the way the Tunisians are heading, that they need some credible elections after the ones in November that you didn't like?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that's an important distinction. We encourage reform. We want to see greater opportunity generated. How that happens will be something that develops country by country. We are willing, as a partner and a friend and an ally of Egypt, to help in that process if Egypt is willing. But as the Secretary said, we definitely believe that reform is needed. No question about that.
QUESTION: But are you talking about elections with them? Are you getting that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: We have always talked to Egypt about elections and the character of the elections that they have had and concerns that we've had about who gets to run and the dynamic and the environment surrounding elections.
QUESTION: And in light of the --
MR. CROWLEY: We did not hesitate earlier this year to express - or last year express our concerns about that.
QUESTION: So you must be urging them to do a better job next time, and you might be telling them maybe to do it sooner rather than later?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I said, we're encouraging reform, clearly. But exactly what the government does and how they do it and on what timeline, that is a matter for the government to work with its own population.
QUESTION: All right. And so at the risk of you just dropping the word "Egypt" and substituting "Yemen" in everything you've been saying for the last 15 minutes --
QUESTION: Can I ask - can I stay with Egypt for just one last one?
QUESTION: Well, this is going to be - all right.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on something from yesterday. You mentioned that there were several overtures from U.S. officials to the Egyptian Government about the detention of journalists and about stopping social media sites. I was curious if you were satisfied with any --
MR. CROWLEY: I believe the journalists have been released, by the way.
QUESTION: -- satisfied with any response that you - or reaction that you've seen from the Egyptian Government since then.
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, at this point, I did ask if we had any high-level conversations with Egypt over the last couple of days. I'm not aware of any. Our interaction has primarily been through the Embassy. But I'm not aware that we've had any particular feedback from Egypt at this point.
QUESTION: Okay. No, but in their actions, I guess I was referring to, regarding the detention of journalists that they --
MR. CROWLEY: Like I say, I can't speak for whatever discussions have happened with the government and our ambassador and embassy staff in Cairo, but I believe I saw a report earlier today that my counterpart in Egypt, or one of my counterparts in Egypt, has acknowledged that there is a need for a dialogue with those who are protesting. And that would be the kind of thing that we would encourage.
Gibbs, press briefing, January 27:
Q And in Egypt, street protests are continuing. Former IAEA chief ElBaradei has returned to the country and is calling for Mubarak to step down. How would the -- does the administration see ElBaradei as a viable alternative to Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's broaden the discussion and have a little bit of a discussion about some of the events in Egypt. First and foremost -- and I said this yesterday, but I want to reiterate it -- that there's an obligation by the government not to engage in violence. There's an obligation by those that are protesting not to engage in violence by burning government buildings. So, first and foremost, this is a process that should be conducted peacefully, and that is one of our primary concerns.
I'm not going to get into different personalities except to say that we believe that this represents an opportunity for President Mubarak and for the government of Egypt to demonstrate its willingness to listen to its own people and to devise a way to broaden the discussion and take some necessary actions on political reform. Those are issues that the President talks with President Mubarak about every time they meet, and I doubt that there is a high-level meeting that happens between the two countries in a bilateral nature where those issues aren't brought up.
Q And how concerned is the administration that the unrest, the upheaval in the Middle East, is now spreading to Yemen, which is a key base for al Qaeda?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is important not to -- because every country is different and every country is at a different stage in its political development -- to not generalize across the platform. So I think you heard the President talk about the people of Tunisia, and I think myself and the Secretary of State have said quite a bit on Egypt. Again, I hate to generalize across a whole series of countries at different stages in their political development and their history.
Q Just to follow on Egypt, does the White House believe that the Egyptian government is stable?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So Hosni Mubarak has the full support of the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Dan, I think it's important to -- this isn't a choice between the government and the people of Egypt. Egypt, we know -- and President Mubarak has for several decades been a close and important partner with our country. And every time the President meets with President Mubarak -- and I would point you to the speech in Cairo in 2009 where the President also specifically addresses this, as well as the readout that we put out on the September meeting that the President had with President Mubarak as part of the Middle East peace process -- that we consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform. All of those are important and we have at every turn encouraged President Mubarak to find a way to engender that political discourse in a positive way. And we will continue to do that.
Q On Egypt, Mubarak has been the leader of Egypt and the United States has worked with him for a very long time. By not vocally supporting him but simply saying we support the people of Egypt, is that sending a message to the people who are out there protesting against him that they should just go full-bore and is that going to inflame the situation? And is that what the President is trying to do?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I --
Q It sounds like he's being tossed aside to a lot of people.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, it's what I said to Dan, Chip. This isn't -- our government and this administration and I presume previous administrations aren't here to pick the leaders of countries over the people of those countries. We stand for the universal rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and what led our country to be created more than two centuries ago. We think that and believe strongly that those rights are held by those throughout the world.
Just recently when President Hu was here, the President discussed universal rights. We do not see this as a choice between one or the other, and I don't believe it should be. We think that -- again, he is a close and important partner.
Q He is?
MR. GIBBS: He is. And every time the two meet the President talks about the steps that he believes that President Mubarak should be taking to have that fuller conversation and to make some important reforms as it relates to political freedoms, we believe -- and they'll have an opportunity to do this later this year -- to have free and fair elections. We believe that the emergency law that's been largely in place since 1981 should be lifted, and spoke out in a statement by me that its extension was not a good thing. It gives the government obviously extra judicial powers, which we don't find to be necessary.
So all of these things we will continue to push and prod President Mubarak on in order, again, to create a situation peacefully -- peacefully -- and I think that needs to be underscored, both the government and the protesters -- to get into a place where a political dialogue can take place.
Q Since he has been so heavy-handed for so many years and you are saying that the most important thing here is adherence to international human rights or the international rights of the people of Egypt, would it be a good thing if he were overthrown?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into picking the leaders of Egypt and that's not what the government of this country does. Again, I think that what is important is we can -- President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way.
Q The perception by many on the ground in Egypt is the United States is taking sides here -- not with Mubarak, but with the people out there protesting. Is that accurate?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'll say this for the third time. This is not about taking sides. This is not about choosing --
Q But I'm saying the perception there is that you're taking sides.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me try it a fourth time. This is not about taking sides. So I hope you'll perceive to them that, again --
Q We don't perceive -- they perceive from you, not us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I hope you'll play each of the four times in which I said it's not a choice that you make.
Q And one other question on this --
MR. GIBBS: Because, again, let me just -- when President Mubarak was in the Oval Office in September, these were issues that were brought up. When the President spoke with President Mubarak around the events that were taking place in Tunisia -- again, go to the readout that we put out about that. It's very explicit that the President talked about the political reforms that have for quite some time needed to take place in Egypt.
So this is a sustained and important message that we want to deliver to President Mubarak, to the government of Egypt, and we think they have an important role to play.
Q There are some analysts who believe the President is expressing that message much more forcefully now than, for example, he did during the Iran uprising; that he was a bit slow and cautious then in supporting the people out in the streets but he's not now.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think our response has been quite similar in speaking out in support of universal rights. The President I know spoke with you all in the Rose Garden prior to the Iranian elections. And, again, as I said earlier, I hate to -- political conditions and development in different countries are different, and I would hate to generalize.
Obama, YouTube interview, January 27:
QUESTION: Over the past few days in Egypt, people have taken to the streets of Cairo and been filming their experiences. A lot of people wrote in from the streets of Cairo wondering your reaction to the events that are taking place there. Kam Hawy wrote in saying: Dear President Obama: Regarding the current situation in the Middle East and Egypt over the past two days, what do you think of the Egyptian government blocking social networks to prevent people from expressing their opinions?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me say first of all that Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues: They made peace with Israel; President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform (political reform, economic reform) is absolutely critical to the long-term wellbeing of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets. My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence.
And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core value that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And I think that is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.
Vice President Joseph Biden, PBS Newshour, January 27:
JIM LEHRER: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?
JOE BIDEN: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.
These are -- a lot of the people out there protesting are middle-class folks who are looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.
And the two things we have been saying here, Jim, is that violence isn't appropriate and people have a right to protest. And so -- and we think that -- I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will -- is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.
JIM LEHRER: You know President Mubarak.
JOE BIDEN: I know him fairly well.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him about this?
JOE BIDEN: I haven't talked to him in the last three days.
I -- last time I -- actually, I haven't talked to him in about a month. But I speak to him fairly regularly. And I think that, you know, there's a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into -- all the way to Pakistan, actually. And there's -- a lot of these countries are beginning to sort of take stock of where they are and what they have to do.
JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that we may be seeing the beginning of a kind of domino effect, similar to what happened after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Poland came first, then Hungary, East Germany.
We have got Tunisia, as you say, maybe Egypt, who knows. Do you smell the same thing coming?
JOE BIDEN: No, I don't.
I wouldn't compare the two. And you and I used to talk years ago about what was going on in Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
JOE BIDEN: A lot of these nations are very dissimilar. They're similar in the sense that they're Arab nations, dissimilar in the circumstance.
For example, Tunisia has a long history of a more progressive middle class, a different set of circumstances, a different relationship with Europe, for example. And the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt's the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don't see any direct relationship, other than there seems -- it might be argued that what is happening in one country sparks whatever concern there is in another country. It may not be the same concern. It may not be even similar, but the idea of speaking out in societies where, in the recent past, there hadn't been much of that occurring.
But I don't -- I think it's a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it's a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: The word -- the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?
JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.
And I think that it would be -- I would not refer to him as a dictator.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, should we be -- should the United States be encouraging these protesters, whether they're in Tunisia or Egypt or wherever? They want their rights. And should we encourage them to seek them, if it means going to the streets or whatever?
JOE BIDEN: I think we should encourage both those who are, to use your phrase, seeking the rights and the government to talk, to actually sit down and talk with one another, to try to resolve some of what are the -- the interests that are being pursued by those who are protesting.
Now, so far, there seems to be some differences. And, historically, in the past, the concern was in some of these countries that some of the more radical elements of the society, more radicalized were the ones in the streets.
Some could argue, might argue that what's going on in Lebanon was different than what's going on in Egypt, in terms of who is the -- who the protesting forces are. Hezbollah is not, doesn't seem to be what is the nature of the protest that's going on in Egypt right now.
But -- so, not every one of these circumstances is the same, which was my point before.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOE BIDEN: We're encouraging the protesters to, as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we're encouraging the government to act responsibly and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.
JIM LEHRER: Does the U.S. have any role to play in this?
JOE BIDEN: I think the role we have to play is continuing to make it clear to us that we think violence is inappropriate on the part of either party -- either of the parties, the government or the protesters.
JIM LEHRER: But there was something said today. I think the president said or the president's spokesman said the United States is not going to take sides in this dispute in Egypt.
Is that correct? Is that a correct...
JOE BIDEN: Well, look, I don't -- I wouldn't characterize it as taking sides.
I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable accommodation -- accommodation and discussion, to try to resolve peacefully and amicable the concerns and claims made by those who've taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to, because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.
So, it's very much, I would argue, in the government's interest. But it's also in the interest of those who are seeking those rights. Again, that's different than some protests that occur in that region of the world that are really designed to overthrow a government for the purpose of establishing an autocracy that is more regressive than anything that exists.
#Egypt must handle protests peacefully and create greater political, social and economic opportunity consistent with people's aspirations.
#SecClinton spoke this afternoon with FM Aboul Gheit of #Egypt. She encouraged restraint and dialogue, and offered U.S. support for reforms.
We are closely monitoring the situation in #Egypt. We continue to urge authorities to show restraint and allow peaceful protests to occur.
We are concerned that communication services, including the Internet, social media and even this #tweet, are being blocked in #Egypt.
Whose bright idea was it to send Joe Biden out to talk about Egypt?
The U.S. vice president just made a major faux pas tonight, the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reports:
Ahead of a day that could prove decisive, NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Biden if the time has "come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?" Biden answered: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there."
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel.… I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.
Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: "We're encouraging the protesters to -- as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we're encouraging the government to act responsibly and -- and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out." He also said: "I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable … accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt."
Egypt's protesters, if they're paying attention to Biden at all, will certainly be wondering which of their demands thus far have been illegitimate.
Earlier today, outgoing White House spokesman Robert Gibbs turned some heads when he said of the protests, "This is not about taking sides." But if you look at the full context of his remarks, it's clear the Obama administration is still counting on the Mubarak regime toughening this one out.
This evening, about 10 minutes after the Associated Press posted a video appearing to show a man being shot in the head (unconfirmed reports on Twitter later said he had died), Egyptians began reporting that their Internet access had been cut off, and an Italian company that provides a major backbone confirmed that its ties to Egypt had been severed. Other reports warned that Egyptian mobile companies were cutting off text-messaging services.
Tomorrow, the protesters have called for massive demonstrations after Friday prayers, and many are worried that the Egyptian regime will use the opportunity to launch a major crackdown. Arabist.net reports that plainclothes security goons have been seen "pouring gasoline on vehicles and setting them on fire" and that policemen were "loading vans with clubs, nails, metal bars and other objects."
Egypt has yet to pass the point of no return, but if tomorrow gets even uglier, I hope the Obama administration gets its story straight.
UPDATE: Click here for a full rundown of Obama administration statements on Egypt.
I have a feeling that this exchange, released in Al Jazeera's Palestine Papers, is going to be making the rounds in Ramallah for some time. "SE" is chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and "YG" is Yossi Gal, then a deputy director general in Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SE: How have you been?
YG: Not too bad, can't complain, how about you?
SE: I'm lying, I've been lying for the last weeks.
YG: Between jogging?
SE: No, no, lying, lying. I was in Cairo, I was in Jordan, I was in America. Everybody is asking me what is going on Israel, what is Olmert going to do?
YG: And you are telling everyone we are on the verge of success.
SE: And I always tell them this is an internal Israeli matter, a domestic Israeli matter and I keep lying. If somebody sneezes in Tel-Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho, and I have to lie. So that's my last week -- all lies.
YG: As a professor of negotiations, you know that white lies are allowed now and then.
SE: I'm not complaining, I'm admitting -- and sometimes I don't feel like lying.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The violent epicenter of protests in Egypt is an industrial city few outsiders know much about: the seaport town of Suez, which sits astride the Suez Canal as it opens southward into the Red Sea.
Suez has seen its share of blood over the years. In 1967, the coastal town was nearly wiped out during the Six Day War with Israel and thereafter was the scene of sporadic guerrilla fighting between the two sides. The canal remained closed for nearly eight years, reopening only in 1975.
In recent years, Suez has seen growing prosperity, sending billions in tax revenue from its factories and workers to the government in Cairo. But as in the rest of Egypt, that prosperity hasn't been widely shared, leading to the same sort of dashed hopes that proved so explosive in Tunisia.
This week, Suez erupted in anger as protesters took to the streets to complain about economic conditions and their lack of freedom under Hosni Mubarak's government. It got ugly fast, with several deaths and reports of demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails in response to a harsh police crackdown. (To get a feel for the chaos, check out journalist Ian Lee's gripping tweets from earlier today.)
Photographs of the mayhem are now coming out. Here are a few of the latest:
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
As the unrest in Egypt continues, and Washington wonks are beginning to weigh in, I'm starting to see a familiar pattern: The discussion is shifting from what's happening on the ground -- which is still in flux -- to what the United States should or shouldn't do about it.
The Washington Post weighed in last night with a rather predictable criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first statement on the protests, and now Politico is channeling some of the complaints by outside observers who say that the administration should be speaking out more aggressively in support of the demonstrators.
My colleague Marc Lynch has already weighed in on this topic this morning, but here are my two cents: It's not about us. Indeed, what's been refreshing about the events in Tunisia and Egypt has been that very little of it has anything to do with the United States. For the most part, the demonstrators aren't chanting anti-American slogans; they're calling on their own corrupt, sclerotic rulers to stand aside. And that's a very healthy phenomenon.
Instead of having Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama say some magic democracy words, I'd much rather see the United States think hard about its system of support for these autocrats. Can the U.S. credibly call for freedom in Egypt when it's subsidizing the Egyptian military to the tune of a billion and a half dollars a year? Is Egypt really so helpful when it comes to the "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians? Can we live with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, or closer to it? If the answer to these questions is the same as it's been for the last few decades, it's probably best to keep our big mouths shut.
The State Department has released the transcript of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks on the ongoing protests in Egypt:
With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations. We know that they've occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we're monitoring that very closely. We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
Not exactly stirring stuff, and no doubt the many Egyptians who risked their necks today will be disappointed at this statement. Still, as my friend Shadi Hamid -- a staunch democracy advocate -- points out, the United States faces a pretty tough dilemma in deciding when and how to pressure one of its closest Middle East allies to open up its political system:
The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists - mostly in prison or in London - were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood - by far the largest opposition force in the country.
How to square this circle? A couple weeks back, I spoke with Tamara Cofman Wittes, the deputy secretary of state who leads Middle East democracy promotion efforts. To be clear, our conversation took place days before the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and well before today's protests in Egypt. I asked her (an admittedly long and convulted) question about the Egyptian government and its intrasigence on political reform. Here's what she said:
Look, we have a very multifaceted relationship with the Egyptian government. They're an important partner on a lot of regional issues, and they're an important partner because we share a lot of interests in this region. We share an interest in a stable Iraq that's reintegating into the Arab world. We share in an interest in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We share an interest in containing the strategic threat posed by Iran's nuclear program.
And so we work together on all these things because we have these common interests and we believe that Egypt can be a strong leader on these issues in the region, a stronger leader, if it engages in the kind of political reform that it's committed to both internationally and to its own people. And we'd like to see that. We've been very open about that. And I don't think there's anything we've said publicly that differs from what we've said privately on these issues.
We've been I think very consistent in saying that the Emergency Law in Egypt should not be a regular way of doing business, that if, as President Mubarak has committed, if they're going to replace it with a counterterrorism law, it should be one that protects civil liberties.
[Me: They've been saying that for five years.]
Yes, they have -- you were there when President Mubarak made that commitment, and that's a commitment he made to his own people and it's one that we hope he'll fulfill.
I imagine the Obama administration will be calibrating its message in the hours and days ahead -- but don't hold your breath for a powerful statement during the State of the Union address tonight.
Every protest movement needs iconic images to rally around. In Tunisia, it was protesters holding up baguettes that symbolized the Tunisian people's demand for economic opportunity. It's still early days in Egypt, assuming today's unrest continues, but here's one dramatic video that is already making the rounds on Twitter. Watch what happens around the 1:30 mark:
Lebanon's current political upheaval resembles a mirror image of the strife that overwhelmed the country from 2006 to 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies embarked on a two-year effort to topple the government. But this time, the tables have turned: It's Hezbollah that has mustered the votes to form a government, which will reportedly be headed by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Meanwhile, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies are on the outside looking in, left to express their displeasure through street protests and acts of violence.
Lebanon's political ground rules hold that the president must hail from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite. A parliamentary majority, therefore, is theoretically able to elevate political figures that have little support within their own community.
But the recent reversal of fortunes has shown that the reality on the ground is somewhat different, and that the only real law in Lebanon is sectarian solidarity. Back in 2008, Hezbollah was appalled and outraged that the ruling coalition would consider replacing its resigned ministers with Shiite figures that had little support in their own community - now they're preparing to bring to power a Sunni prime minister that can count on only token Sunni support. Meanwhile, Hariri, who had defended the democratic legitimacy of the government when he had a solid parliamentary majority, now denounces the election of a new opposition-friendly government as "virtually a coup d'état."
All signs currently point toward chaos: The new Miqati government, once it is established, will vote to discontinue government support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is expected to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But as Elias Muhanna pointed out in FP last week, it's hard to see what the opposition gains from this maneuver. As the recent protests have shown, Miqati doesn't have the credibility to convince his community that the tribunal's indictments are flawed. And after he moves to disrupt the investigation of a murdered Sunni leader, his already meager support among his own community will likely fall further.
Hariri and his allies may be tempted take some solace in this dynamic. They will point to this fact as evidence that Hezbollah still needs them, and will therefore be forced to compromise. The situation, however, is not nearly so sanguine: Lebanese politics has a tendency to return to equilibrium only after no small degree of bloodshed and lost economic opportunity. Once again, it is the Lebanese people who will bear the cost of their fundamentally tribal and dishonest political system.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
For the last few hours, I've been glued to my Twitter stream, monitoring the spreading protests in Egypt. The demonstrations have long been planned as a response to "Police Day," a much-unloved national holiday originally intended to honor cops in the city of Ismailia who stood against the British invasion of 1952. In recent years, it's become a potent symbol of everything that's wrong with Egypt under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.
This year, the protesters, inspired by events in Tunisia and outraged by the death last year of Khalid Said, a young man brutally tortured and killed by police in Alexandria, organized themselves on Facebook and called for a "day of anger" across the country.
So far, they've succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Events are moving rapidly, but here's what we know so far: The protests began at different points in the city, such as Doqqi in Giza to the west and Shubra in the north, and converged on points downtown. I've seen reports of large crowds in Ramses, Abdeen, Ataba, and Tahrir squares -- all major important public spaces. There are also scattered demonstrations in other parts of the country, such as Alexandria, Mansoura, and Sinai.
It's too early to say that these are "massive" protests -- there are, after all, some 80 million people in Egypt, and no report I've seen thus far puts today's number at more than 100,000 -- but they could easily grow into something truly huge. So far, the police have mostly taken a hands-off approach, albeit with beatings, tear gas, and water cannons in some places. But if the demonstrations continue to grow, Mubarak could face the same dilemma that faced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia: Crack down for real, try to meet the protesters' demands halfway (say, by sacking his widely reviled interior minister, Habib al-Adly), or some combination of the two.
After today, Mubarak can't have great confidence in his Central Security Forces -- the riot police charged with putting down demonstrations. These are usually slim, scared-looking lads from upper Egypt, poorly trained and uneducated, with little pay and few perks. I've seen multiple reports of the CSF being outmaneuved and backing down in the face of protesters. The army is another matter -- more than a million men at arms, well-equipped and presumably well motivated to protect their significant interests across the country. (He can also call on the regular police and the vast resources of state security, which will no doubt be hunting down organizers in the days to come.) Will we be seeing tanks in the streets this spring?
It may not get to that point. But the Egyptian street got a taste of its power today. For a people long thought to be quiescent, apathetic, apolitical -- it must be an electrifying feeling. Hosni is not going to sleep well tonight.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
In case you haven't heard, Al Jazeera (along with the Guardian) on Sunday announced it had gotten its hands on more than 1,600 Palestinian documents detailing negotiations with Israeli and U.S. officials. The documents aren't all released yet, but the story is already roiling the Arab world, prompting fresh cries that the Palestinian Authority is "selling out" to Israel by offering politically sensitive concessions on Jerusalem, its holy sites, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Perhaps more damning, in Arab eyes, is the language used by some Palestinian leaders. Longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted in one document, a write-up of a Jan. 15, 2010, meeting with U.S. envoy David Hale, saying he had offered Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state ... what more can I give?"
Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have made no effort to prepare their public for these kinds of concessions. In 2009, for instance, Erekat appeared on Al Jazeera and said, "There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem -- with every single stone in it -- becomes the capital of Palestine."
No wonder Palestinian leaders are scrambling to contain the damage, ripping Al Jazeera and even the emir of Qatar, which sponsors the satellite channel. Erekat told reporters that the documents have been "taken out of context and contain lies… Al Jazeera's information is full of distortions and fraud." For its part, the network says it has "taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity," as has the Guardian. The State Department says it's looking into them.
So, who leaked the papers? Most likely people within the Negotiations Support Unit, the Palestinian organization that staffs Erekat and took most of the notes, the Guardian reports:
[A]s the negotiations have increasingly been seen to have failed, and the Ramallah-based PA leadership has come to be regarded by many Palestinians as illegitimate or unrepresentative, discontent among NSU staff has grown and significant numbers have left. There has also been widespread discontent in the organisation at the scale and nature of concessions made in the talks.
If this speculation is right, the leakers intended to embarrass their former bosses. Mission accomplished.
So what now? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been ruling outside the law for some time now; there doesn't seem to be a legal means for his opponents to oust him. That means Palestinians who oppose the PA are going to need to take to the streets to voice their disapproval, Tunisia style.
And what of the two-state solution? It was probably already dead, and these documents will only reinforce the point. But I imagine the "peace process" will limp along, one way or another, until it becomes impossible to defend anymore. I hope the Obama team has an exit strategy.
As protesters overwhelmed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's security forces in Tunis, the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the George W. Bush administration's signature democracy promotion organization, watched as its mandate was fulfilled in the most unlikely of places.
It is, to say the least, an awkward bit of symbolism. MEPI defines its mission as "develop[ing] more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies." And in the country where it is based, the Tunisian people proved themselves to be uniquely and spectacularly unhappy with their regime.
But according to current and former democracy promotion advocates in the U.S. government, the decision to base MEPI's offices in Tunisia was made because the embassy had enough free space to accommodate its staff, and the country was thought to be stable enough to not interfere with the organization's sometimes controversial work.
Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who oversaw the creation of MEPI, said that the Ben Ali regime was "constantly paranoid" about the organization's presence in the country, and never allowed it to undertake significant democracy promotion programs. As a result, "we were doing a lot of stuff very, very quietly - not to say covert, but very quietly," Carpenter said.
The Ben Ali regime's hostility to any efforts to open up the political system was attested to by other Western diplomats who served in Tunis. Alan Goulty, who served as the British ambassador in the country from 2004 to 2008, said that the government would constantly raise the specter of terrorism to discourage any contact with Tunisian opposition figures.
"There was one explosion in 1987 of a bomb, where a British lady was wounded and lost her leg," Goulty said. "I lost count of the times that Tunisian officials, 15 years later, reminded me of that incident to justify their claims that the Tunisian opposition, whatever form it took, was terrorist."
In theory, the European Union should have had considerable economic and political leverage to convince the Ben Ali regime to liberalize. Trade between EU member states and Tunisia in 2009 was in excess of $20 billion - by comparison, total U.S. imports and exports to the country were valued at around $800 million. The EU association agreement with Tunisia also provided a ready-made avenue for discussion human rights and political liberalization. In practice, however, EU efforts in the country were anemic at best.
"Frankly, the EU always pulled its punches [on democracy promotion], because of the need to operate unanimously," said Goulty. "And a different approach was taken by [our] Mediterranean partners, principally France and Italy, who believed that the best way forward was to get close to the regime and further one's economic interests."
In fact, the primary contribution that the United States made to Tunisia's recent unrest was neglect. As U.S. relations with the other North African states improved over the past two decades, the relative importance of Tunisia as a U.S. ally in the region declined. U.S. diplomats may not have had much success promoting liberalization in the country, but the national security implications of the fall of Ben Ali's regime raised steadily fewer concerns in Washington.
David Mack, currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute, served as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia from 1979 to 1982. "If you go back to the time when I was there, our relations were disappearing with Libya, we had poor relations with Algeria, and strained relationships in many parts of the Muslim world," he noted. "But the reality is that today Tunisia plays a smaller role overall in U.S. strategic political calculation."
However, diplomats insisted that Tunisia's apparent stability under Ben Ali did not cause them to underestimate the population's grievances with his regime. A prescient June 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks criticizes the "sclerotic" regime, which it says has "lost touch with the Tunisian people." The same memo complains that "make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business" and meet with regime opponents.
Those who spent time in the country seconded that assessment. "The place was so sterile -- you just feel people's fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society," said Carpenter. "Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'"
PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images
Events are still moving quickly in Tunisia, where word has just come out that 87-year-old Fouad Mebaza, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, is now the new interim president after someone (we don't know who) determined that yesterday's takeover by the prime minister wasn't strictly legal. Also today, Saudi Arabia announced that it had welcomed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, and his family.
Under Article 57 of the Tunisian Constitution -- invoked today by the Constitutional Council because Ben Ali has fled the country and is therefore incapable of performing his duties -- Mebaza can only be in charge for a maximum of 60 days, after which he must hold a new presidential election (in which he is not allowed to run). Whoever wins may at that point dissolve the parliament and hold new legislative elections.
We'll have some informed anlysis of the particulars in a few hours, but here are a few questions to think about.
Who is actually running the country right now? The military? The security services? Top civilian officials? Where are these decisions coming from?
Is it a good sign that the Tunisian regime, or rather what's left of it, is trying to following constitutional procedure?
Can one of the most repressive governments in the world, where the last presidential contest saw Ben Ali re-elected with 90 percent of the vote, organize and hold a credible election in only 60 days? Does it want to, or will it try to cheat? And are there any opposition figures who have the national stature to win?
How will the protesters, who seem to have largely stayed home again today, react to this new development? Was getting rid of Ben Ali enough to satisfy them? Or will they now fracture, as the regime probably intends?
What's the protocol for diplomats when the government they serve has collapsed? The staff at the Tunisian Embassy here in downtown Washington DC, apparently deciding that the political paralysis at home required a visual metaphor at their foreign outpost, immobilized the building's front gate with a tightly-coiled iron chain and a padlock. The modernist embassy building served this afternoon as a silent backdrop to a couple of dozen Tunisian immigrants chatting excitedly among themselves as the occasional passing car honked in solidarity and two secret service officers casually stood to one side.
Chained-up as it was, the embassy was hardly making a show of hospitality, but a doorbell offered at least the promise of some normal communication. A man's voice promptly answered over the intercom, "Oui?"
I introduced myself.
"We are closed."
Might there be someone I could speak with?
"There's no one here."
And you are?
Anyone else there?
"We are closed."
The demonstrators told me to give it up. "They are in there, but they are afraid," Monaem Mabrouki, a Tunisian immigrant, told me. "We don't want to hurt them, but they don't feel like celebrating with us." I imagine it's only a matter of time: the scene on the street seemed a lot more fun than the aura of angsty silence coming from the embassy. But who can begrudge a day of private mourning for the passing away of a political order?
It's hard to envy the position Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in these last few weeks: There just aren't many good answers available to despots who are faced with popular uprisings. Still, he should have known better than to settle on Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's 1978-1979 playbook for quelling incipient revolutions.
Indeed, Ben Ali seemed intent on compressing the shah's yearlong series vacillations into a tidy one-week time frame. First, a show of denial: The shah started 1978 by denouncing street protests as conspiracies directed from abroad, while Ben Ali started this week by declaring mass demonstrations to be "terrorist acts." Next a halfhearted show of force to restore law and order: In the autumn of 1978, the shah declared martial law and organized a military government; Ben Ali, for his part, imposed a nationwide curfew this week and presumably instructed security forces to use deadly force against continued protests. Then a hasty series of concessions that are inevitably interpreted as too little, too late: Late in the game, each leader tried to shuffle his cabinet into a more liberal arrangement. That's followed by a transparently cynical, and frankly depressing, declaration of sympathy for the protests: The shah went on television in November to announce, "I have heard the voice of your revolution"; Ben Ali went on television on Thursday to tell his restive populace, "I have understood you." Finally, there's the retreat into exile -- the shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, while Ben Ali is now reported to be in Malta, France, or Saudi Arabia. (The aftermath is unlikely to get any rosier for Ben Ali, judging from the shah's experience: He shuttled around the world -- from Morocco, to Mexico, to the Bahamas, to the United States to Switzerland -- in search of an offer of residence that was more than temporary, until he finally died in 1980.)
The shah's unsteady strategy was already discredited in the eyes of the current regime in Iran, which came into power after his departure -- hence, the Iranian leadership's unremitting hard-line crackdown when it was faced with mass protests in the wake of the country's 2009 presidential election. Tunisia's current revolution may well be seen in Tehran, and perhaps in other regional capitals, less as a reminder of the power of popular action than as confirmation of Ben Ali's personal weakness in refusing to pick a position and stick with it. If any other governments threaten to collapse in the wake of Tunisia's successful revolution, you can expect that the protests will be met with either an outstretched hand or a clenched fist, but certainly not both.
In a dramatic turn of events, Mohamed Ghannouchi, Tunisia's prime minister, has just announced that he is temporarily taking control of the country. Details are still murky, and nobody seems to know where President Ben Ali is. Rumor has it that he's fled to France, or Malta under Libyan protection, or that the Army prevented him from escaping.
Ghannouchi put the matter this way: "Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties."
Earlier today, after thousands of protesters surrounded the Interior Ministry and battled security forces in the streets, Ben Ali announced that he had dissolved the government and would hold elections in six months. Then there were rumblings that there would be an announcement on state television, and many assumed that Ben Ali was going to make another speech.
Instead, Ghannouchi, a colorless functionary in his late 60s, showed up, surrounded by two other senior officials, and made his surprising announcement.
This may not solve the crisis. Ghannouchi is not necessarily any more popular than Ben Ali, though he's not nearly as tainted by the lurid tales of corruption and excess that so damaged the ruling family. But Tunisians certainly don't respect the prime minister; they call him "Mr. Oui Oui" because he's always saying yes to Ben Ali.
This is obviously a fast-moving story, and nobody seems to know what's going on with the Tunisian military. The police are much more powerful and numerous, and as of this afternoon there were still reports of gunfire against protesters. But there were also signs that security forces were unwilling to crack down and that may have told Ben Ali that it was time to get out of Dodge.
UPDATE: Here's the BBC's translation of Ghannouchi's full statement:
"Citizens, men and women! In accordance with the provisions of chapter 56 of the constitution, which stipulates that in case of the impossibility of the president to conduct his duties temporarily, he would delegate his prerogatives to the prime minister. Given the difficulty for the president of the republic to carry out his duties temporarily, I will, starting from now, exercise the prerogatives of the president of the republic. I urge all sons and daughters of Tunisia - of all ideological and political persuasions and of all sections and regions - to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult juncture and to ensure its security and stability. While I assume this responsibility, I promise to respect the constitution and to carry out political, economic and social reforms which have been announced. I will do so with perfection and through consultation with all national bodies - including political parties, national organisations and civil society components. May God grant me success!"
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
UPDATE: The Tunisian government is denying that Morjane has stepped down, according to Al Arabiya. Meanwhile, President Ben Ali just spoke and said he had ordered security forces to stop firing on demonstrators. He also announced a series of measures aimed at mollifying popular anger, including lower prices for bread, milk, and sugar. Most important of all, he promised not to run for re-election in 2014, when his term is due to expire. We'll see if he lasts that long.
This thing may really be happening. Kamel Morjane -- or someone with access to his website -- has just announced his resignation*:
Citizens of the Republic of Tunisia, After witnessing the recent event that our country has been enduring since December17th 2010, I declare my inaptitude in pursuing my function in a serene and objective environment as intended.
I declare hereby my official resignation from my function as a minister of foreign affairs at the Tunisian government. In a last effort to assume my responsabilities, I am asking the families of the tunisian martyrs to accept my sincere condoleances and my deep regret faced to their common tragedy. I assumed the fate of the Tunisian citizens, after marrying the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s first cousins, and was a member of the family and part of their clan. I am not proud of my own family, and in an honest declaration, would be ready to be judged in court at the same time as they will be. This will be my last service to the Tunisian citizens, in hope that with my resignation, citizens of Tunisia will be more graceful towards me and my family.
I make this decision in hope for the return of rest. I relinquish the Tunisian government to express my deep affliction and my righteous anger toward the dire management of this crisis, causing hence the death of dozens of young Tunisians. I am profoundly convinced that these are not terrorist acts, but citizens exerting their right to strike against a regime who abandoned them for two decades. For this reason, I do not deem myself a member of this oppressing and manipulating government. In a last resort to save face with the international media, the government is working hard from within to portray the protesters as mindless terrorists destroying their country and refusing any peaceful discussion. The government has hired teams of their own police in civilian attire that go around ravaging the suburbs in an effort to spread doubt and disseminate the truth about the tunisian people.
I reiterate my most sincere condolences to the families of victims, not only to the ones that passed away these four past weeks, but to all the broken families by the injustice and inconveniences caused by this clan as well.
For a free Tunisia,
This is a fast-moving story. The New York Times reports that protesters overran a mansion owned by one of the president's relatives. The Twitterverse is aflame with rumors that other members of the ruling family have fled the country. President Ben Ali is said to have three helicopters fueled up and ready for an emergency flight to Malta.
*Note of caution: The statement has yet to be confirmed; it could be a hoax. There are reports that the Foreign Ministry is denying it. But it wouldn't be too surprising if Morjane, an urbane former senior U.N. official, stepped down. Stay tuned.
For the past two and a half years, Lebanese politics was played much like a game of touch football. That is, it operated within the confines of a strictly defined set of rules: It didn't always make for the most compelling sport, but at least nobody got hurt. This was the legacy of the May 2008 Doha Agreement, which gave Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition veto power in the new national unity government.
But it's unity no more. The rival coalitions finally faced an issue where no compromise was possible: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was established by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute those behind the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is expected to soon issue indictments implicating Hezbollah members in the crime. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, his son, has staunchly resisted Hezbollah's attempts to pressure him to disavow the court. Today, Lebanon's opposition cabinet ministers resigned in protest, forcing the collapse of Hariri's government.
The new rules of Lebanese politics will make for a full-contact contest worthy of the NFL. The parties now begin what promises to be a protracted process to form a new government. The opposition will likely try to pressure Hariri by raising alternative candidates for prime minister. However, any other potential premier would be hard-pressed to help Hezbollah undermine the tribunal's credibility.
"As the son of the slain leader -- with Hezbollah looking for some form of absolution or some way of getting itself off the hook [for the Special Tribunal's indictments] -- Saad Hariri is in a particular position to do that much more so than anyone else," noted Mona Yacoubian, the director of the United States Institute of Peace's Lebanon Working Group.
Few expect the situation to quickly devolve into violence -- the more likely scenario is long-term government paralysis, punctuated by rival political demonstrations organized to show the various factions' popular support. In other words, the country appears poised to return to the political deadlock that existed in 2006, after Shiite cabinet ministers resigned in an earlier attempt to prevent the Lebanese government from lending its support to the international tribunal.
On the bright side, Lebanese political parties are making an effort to prevent the situation from turning into a sectarian turf battle between the Shiite and Sunni communities. Reached for comment, a delegation from Hariri's predominantly Sunni Future Movement declined to comment. A Hezbollah official also said that his party had decided to not make any further statements for the next two days on the matter. By staying above the fray for the time being, the parties are trying to keep this as a dispute between two political blocs, rather than turn it into a dispute between rival sects.
That has left the political field open to Lebanon's Christian parties, which are divided between the two sides. "Any democratic means [to achieve the opposition's goals] are allowed; this is what the opposition has committed to," a senior official of Gen. Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the opposition, told me. "If there is a need for street protests, why not?"
Labor Minister Boutros Harb, a Hariri loyalist, shot back that "this government will be under the obligation to continue running the current affairs of the ministries" until another cabinet is formed. He also criticized Aoun, saying that his ambition to be president was "a big part of the problem" currently facing the country.
By the standards of Lebanese rhetoric, this is still relatively tame -- Druze leader Walid Jumblatt once referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an "ape" and a "murderer," but now counts himself among Assad's allies. Lebanon still hasn't returned to that level of vitriol -- but the rules that ensured its politics were kept within certain boundaries have now been broken, and nobody can be quite sure where the game is headed next.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted his pay slip on Facebook today, in what his office is billing as a step forward for government transparency. The picture reveals that Netanyahu makes approximately $120,000 a year, significantly less than President Barack Obama's $400,000 salary.
To me, the greatest surprise of this news was Israel's high income tax rates. Netanyahu's gross income was 43,952 shekels, but after tax deductions, his net income came out to 15,027 shekels. That's a tax rate of almost 66 percent! And I thought the Israeli socialist ideal was dead.
The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) claimed to have uncovered two Israeli spy cameras placed in the mountains overlooking Beirut. And how did it know that the devices belong to Israel? Well, one of them had the word "Israel" written in English on its side. The LAF promptly posted photos of the cameras on its website.
A mysterious explosion also rocked the southern Lebanese city of Saida on Wednesday night, which Lebanese media said was caused by Israel destroying another espionage device. Israel denied that was the case, and Lebanese authorities have so far been unable to produce munitions with "Israel" written in large letters on its side.
A report released today by the group Physicians for Human Rights details the horrific mistreatment of African refugees who are captured as they try to cross through Egypt and into Israel. The Africans -- mainly from Somalia and Eritrea -- are systematically raped, beaten, burned and then extorted by Bedouin human traffickers before they are sent across the border into Israel. Download the full report here if you want to read in appalling detail about the experiences of a few of these African migrants.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian government turns a blind eye to these abuses. That's probably because they feel that it helps discourage migration from Sudan, Somali and Eritrea though Egyptian territory. How else does Egypt discourage migrants from trying to use the country as a transit point? A shoot to kill policy. Egyptian security forces have shot and killed more than 85 migrants in Sinai since 2007 by Human Rights Watch's count. Scores more are deported back to their countries of origin, where they are often in danger because of war or threats from the government.
Some of these migrants are asylum seekers, while others are just looking to move to a new country where they can find work and make money. But Israel doesn't want these people as residents any more than Egypt wants them as travelers. Israel repatriated around 150 Sudanese asylum seekers on Monday, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor. Israel fears that immigration from Africa will take jobs from Israeli Jews and pose a threat to the Jewish demographic majority.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
FIFA President Sepp Blatter isn't the most-respected sporting figure around, and he seemingly doesn't know when to shut up. Just as the furor in the United States at the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup was dying down, Blatter happened to remind the world of another problem with Qatar's bid.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, which apparently doesn't matter to FIFA because, hey, those pre-game speeches are only about racism. God forbid any other minority group be persecuted. Here was Blatter's solution for gay fans worried about attending the event:
They [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities."
Former NBA player John Amaechi, who famously came out in 2007, told the BBC 5 radio that, "It's not about people having sex in public and being sanctioned for it, it's the fact that Qatar was one of 79 countries to sanction executing gays at the United Nations." Here's what FIFA's official mission says, under "What We Stand For":
...Unity. We believe it is FIFA's responsibility to foster unity within the football world and to use football to promote solidarity, regardless of gender, ethnic background, faith or culture."
Whoops, forgetting something?
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Critics of the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace, a group that includes just about everyone who is paying attention, say that focusing on Israeli settlements for the last 2 years -- as opposed to "core issues" -- was the key mistake that hindered potential progress in other areas.
Instead, these folks say, Obama & co. should have focused on borders, because once the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the outlines of a future Palestinian state, it would be clear what was a "settlement" and what was merely a suburb of Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put himself in this camp Monday, dismissing settlements as a "marginal" issue and calling instead for negotations to focus on -- you guessed it -- "core issues."
"To reach peace, we need to discuss the issues that are really hindering peace, the question of recognition, security, refugees and, of course, many other issues," he reportedly said in a speech just hours before meeting U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
One way to read those remarks is that Netanyahu is ready to roll up his sleeves. More likely, he has no intention of meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand to get serious and lay his cards on the table. Note that he did not mention borders at all. Instead, he appears to be reiterating his position that the Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which they refuse to do, that Israel needs to have control of the Jordan Valley, another nonstarter for the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians need to give up the "right of return" (this one is more reasonable) before he'll even think about trading land for peace.
In other words, don't expect the new, settlement-free U.S. approach to yield any more progress than the old one. What's more, even if the talks did focus on borders, where the parties are supposedly closer together, it wouldn't take very long for them to come back to areas where they're further apart... namely settlements and Jerusalem. Israel won't freeze the former, and Netanyahu has said he won't divide the latter, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital.
The lesson here is that it's devlishly complicated to jerry-rig negotiations to avoid the tough topics, especially when neither side seems especially eager to do a deal. One can come up with all kinds of sophistry justifying one U.S. tactic or another, but if Israeli and Palestinian leaders aren't serious, and aren't feeling pressure from their own publics to make peace, then nothing will work.
Five tourists have been attacked by sharks (with one killed) over the past week in the waters off Egypt's Red Sea coast, a vacation area especially popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. And nobody knows what to do.
Despite the frequent depiction of the cartilaginous fish as terrifying man eaters, these kinds of attacks are actually very rare. The Egyptian government has brought in experts from around the world to help solve the shark crisis. So far no one has arrived at a definitive conclusion, but possible explanations include over fishing in the Red Sea, an excess of resorts along the coast, and the effects of climate change.
There's another theory floating around, though: Israel's infamous intelligence agency is behind the attacks. Ahram Online reports (and refutes):
Speaking on the public TV program "Egypt Today" yesterday, a specialist introduced as "Captain Mustafa Ismael, a famous diver in Sharm El Sheikh," said that the sharks involved in the attack are ocean sharks and do not live in Egypt's waters.
When asked by the anchor how the shark entered Sharm El Sheikh waters, he burst out, "no, who let them in."
Urged to elaborate, Ismael said that he recently got a call from an Israeli diver in Eilat telling him that they captured a small shark with a GPS planted in its back, implying that the sharks were monitored to attack in Egypt's waters only.
"Why would these sharks travel 4000 km and not have any accidents until it entered Sinai?" said Ismael.
Earlier today, General Abdel Fadeel Shosha, the governor of South Sinai, backed Ismael's theory. In a phone call to the TV program, he said that it is possible that Israeli intelligence, Mossad, is behind the incident and that they are doing it to undermine the Egyptian tourism industry. He added that Egypt needs time to investigate the theory.
The shark attacks have the potential to do some real damage to Egypt, where tourism is pillar of the economy and an important provider of jobs. But the idea that Israel (which is currently dealing with its own Nature Channel-worthy crisis) is behind the attacks is pretty farfetched.
ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, Israeli authorities finally contained the wildfire that devastated parts of northern Israel, near Haifa. The fire, which killed 42 people, including Israel's highest-ranking policewoman, is being called the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Today, a 14-year old boy admitted to throwing a piece of coal from a hookah pipe into the forest, starting the blaze.
Israel prides itself on its self-reliance and is usually a provider of rescue teams and medical personnel during other countries' natural disasters. The government was reportedly ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude, and had to take the unprecedented step of asking for help from abroad. Noting that both the United States and Russia have asked for international help in fighting major wildfires, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We also did not hesitate, nor were we ashamed in requesting such assistance." (Netanyahu also reportedly looked to President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how not to respond to a natural disaster.)
What's most surprising is the not the help Israel received from the United States, European Union, and Russia, but that from Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained since May's deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, killing eight Turks and a Turkish-American. Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since the raid to thank him for sending two airplanes to help battle the blaze. "We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries, Turkey and Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement released to the press after the call.
Netanyahu also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday for the first time since direct talks broke down in September. Abbas volunteered to send three fire trucks to the area.
Will disaster lead to diplomacy? Turkey has already engaged in "hurricane diplomacy" with Greece after a series of earthquakes devastated both countries in 1999. Greece and Turkey had maintained fraught and conflict-ridden relations for centuries. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, each sent rescue teams to help the other and newspapers were full of stories about Turkish citizens offering to donate kidneys to Greek victims (and vice versa).
Turkey doesn't seem as enthusiastic about improved relations this time. Erdogan said he still expects an apology and compensation from Israel for the flotilla deaths, noting that the aid for the fire was purely humanitarian.
"We would never stand by when people are being killed and nature is being destroyed anywhere in the world," Erdogan told CNNTurk. "No one should try to interpret this any differently." In a dig at Netanyahu, who said Turkey's gesture could help improve Turkish-Israeli ties, he continued:
"Now some are coming out and saying, 'Let's begin a new phase.' Before that, our demands must be met ... Our nine brothers martyred on the Mavi Marmara [the vessel raided by Israeli commandos] must be accounted for. First an apology must be made and compensation must be paid."
The global reaction to Qatar's winning drive to host the World Cup in 2022 can be summed up in a word: incredulous. For a more nuanced take, David Goldblatt has a smart piece for the Middle East Channel weighing the pros and cons of holding the world's top soccer tournament in a tiny sheikhdom with plenty of money and moxy but little history of athletic excellence. Definitely worth a read, but in the meantime, check out these great photos from FP's Doha correspondent (disclosure: my wife) of Qataris celebrating the victory along the corniche Friday:
For the full effect, check out the video, too.
Sandy Choi for FP
FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
While everyone in Washington and probably most global capitals is obsessing over WikiLeaks, the sports world is eagerly awaiting this week's big event: FIFA's decision on who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (To give you some perspective: World Cup was Yahoo's second-most popular search target this year, after the gulf oil spill.)
Today, the 2022 bidders -- Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the United States -- are giving their final presentations in a last-ditch attempt to persuade any remaining fence-sitters that their country deserves the nod, and tomorrow FIFA will announce the winners.
The 2018 Cup is destined to go to a European country; the most interesting contest is for 2022. Soccer blogs, which have been buzzing with gossip and speculation for the last year or so, seem to think it's going to come down to a choice between the United States and -- believe it or not -- Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf emirate whose seemingly quixotic bid to be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament has captured the imagination of millions of Arabs all over the world. (Disclosure: My wife's company does some small-scale work for the Qatari government in this area.)
Unfortunately for Qatar, FIFA's bid evaluation report rated the country's facilities as "high risk" due to the fact that few of them are built. The extremely hot weather in June and July, when the Cup would be held is another major concern. In response, Qatar is sinking billions into its bid and has promised to build stadiums deploying innovative outdoor cooling technology and then donate them to developing countries. Doha, the capital, is festooned with banners (reading "22" and "Expect Amazing") promoting the bid, and seemingly every shopping mall in town has a booth handing out free bumper stickers and other paraphernalia. Expectations are high.
And that's what worries me. Qatar has made an amazing go of it, and it would be an inspiring win for a region that has too few of them, but I'd be extremely surprised if the United States loses. Ultimately, FIFA's goal is to make as much money as possible, and Qatar can't hope to match the size of the U.S. market. But you never know. Politicians, not technocrats, are the ultimate deciders here.
One final note: It would be a great irony if Arab leaders' sniping about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism and general troublemaking in the region, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, tipped the scales against the Middle East's first real shot at hosting the Cup. I think the decision has probably already been made, but you never know...
Clive Rose/Getty Images for Qatar 2022
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