For more on why I’m doing reduced news coverage right now, please read this post. — PW
With Tripoli’s rebel underground
He was rummaging in the boot of his car as we walked past. “Go forward,” he instructed out of the side of his mouth. “I’ll pick you up further on.”
The car circled several times before he stopped. In a snatched conversation on the phone, he told us he feared he was being watched.
Eventually he felt confident enough to draw up. “You want to go to the fish market?” he called through the lowered window. “Get in.”
No, we didn’t want to go to the fish market, but as rare and highly-restricted westerners in Tripoli, we both needed a cover story for why we were getting in a Libyan’s car.
Our contact was a middle-aged opposition activist in the heart of Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold. Fear and danger are rife; the stakes are high.
During the course of an hour-long conversation, he told us that activists in Tripoli, frustrated by the violent suppression of peaceful protests, were now resorting to guerilla tactics to try to bring down the regime. Even suicide bombings were being considered, he said. His claims cannot be verified or properly evaluated, but they echo accounts obtained by other journalists in Tripoli, and help piece together a picture of underground opposition in the regime-held west of the country.
Our contact took us to a safe house some distance from the city centre. “I am not going to tell you my name, and I don’t want to know yours,” he said. Before we left, he insisted we delete his phone number from our mobiles.
“They are going to catch me soon,” he said with a shrug. He suspected his neighbour of being a spy for the regime – “supergrass” the word he used, reflecting his years living in the UK.
“My name is on a list. Three or four of his boys are really interested in me.” In the course of our discussion, he rarely called Gaddafi by name.
“My family don’t know about what I’m doing – even my wife,” he said. He and his fellow activists communicate using sim cards bought from migrant workers who have fled the country. They speak in code and rarely meet. They have “a few friends in Benghazi”, the heart of the rebel-held east, with whom they are in sporadic contact.
Shortly after the Libyan uprising began in the east of the country in mid-February, activists in Tripoli attempted to mount a protest in the capital’s central Green Square. It met a violent response from the regime. The rebels were forced to retreat and reconsider their tactics.
Now, the contact said, they were turning to guerrilla actions. They have attacked checkpoints across the city, killing the pro-Gaddafi militia and stealing their guns. The shooting that crackles across the city after dark, which regime officials claim is celebratory gunfire, is the work of the underground rebels, he said. “They [the regime] are covering up … Every night there are attacks. The boys [on the checkpoints] have got scared. They are only getting 40 dinars (£20) a night, and they are saying we don’t want to do this dirty work any more.” There have been fewer checkpoints since the attacks began, he claimed.
Asked how they felt about killing fellow Libyans, he replied: “If we don’t kill them, they’re going to kill us.”
The rebels, he said, were planning attacks on petrol stations. Fifteen police stations in the capital have been burned down since the uprising began, he said.
And the underground activists were preparing even bigger attacks. “People are ready for suicide bombings.” He told us the rebels were gaining access to explosives from fishermen who use dynamite to stun or kill fish to aid harvesting.
The Libyan leader himself was their number one target, he said. How would they get near him? “We will. We can get near him.” (The Guardian)
Libyan rebel chief with U.S. ties feels abandoned (McClatchy Newspapers)
U.S. groups helped nurture Arab uprisings
Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states.
The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. But as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the United States and many Middle Eastern leaders, who frequently complained that their leadership was being undermined, according to the cables.
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.
No one doubts that the Arab uprisings are home grown, rather than resulting from “foreign influence,” as alleged by some Middle Eastern leaders.
“We didn’t fund them to start protests, but we did help support their development of skills and networking,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy and research group. “That training did play a role in what ultimately happened, but it was their revolution. We didn’t start it.”
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School and the State Department.
“We learned how to organize and build coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy, a founder of the youth movement that ultimately drove the Egyptian uprisings. Mr. Fathy, who attended training with Freedom House, said, “This certainly helped during the revolution.”
Ms. Qadhi, the Yemeni youth activist, attended American training sessions in Yemen.
“It helped me very much because I used to think that change only takes place by force and by weapons,” she said.
But now, she said, it is clear that results can be achieved with peaceful protests and other nonviolent means.
But some members of the activist groups complained in interviews that the United States was hypocritical for helping them at the same time that it was supporting the governments they sought to change.
“While we appreciated the training we received through the NGOs sponsored by the U.S. government, and it did help us in our struggles, we are also aware that the same government also trained the state security investigative service, which was responsible for the harassment and jailing of many of us,” said Mr. Fathy, the Egyptian activist.
Interviews with officials of the nongovernmental groups and a review of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks show that the democracy programs were constant sources of tension between the United States and many Arab governments.
The cables, in particular, show how leaders in the Middle East and North Africa viewed these groups with deep suspicion, and tried to weaken them. Today the work of these groups is among the reasons that governments in turmoil claim that Western meddling was behind the uprisings, with some officials noting that leaders like Ms. Qadhi were trained and financed by the United States.
Diplomatic cables report how American officials frequently assured skeptical governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting revolutions. (New York Times)