The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.


During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt sentences Muslim Brotherhood leader, others to death

Reuters reports: An Egyptian court sentenced Mohamed Badie, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and 13 other senior members of the group to death for inciting chaos and violence, and gave a life term to a U.S.-Egyptian citizen for ties to the Brotherhood.

The men were among thousands of people detained after freely elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi was toppled in 2013 by the military under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president.

Sisi describes the Brotherhood as a major security threat. The group says it is committed to peaceful activism and had nothing to do with Islamist militant violence in Egypt since Mursi’s fall following mass protests against his rule.

Egypt’s mass trials of Brotherhood members and people accused of links to the group, as well as its tough crackdown on Islamist and liberal opposition alike, have drawn international criticism of its judicial system and human rights record.

The sentences, pronounced at a televised court session on Saturday, can be appealed before Egypt’s highest civilian court in a process that could take years to reach a final verdict.

U.S.-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Soltan was sentenced to life in jail for supporting the veteran Islamist movement and transmitting false news. He is the son of Brotherhood preacher Salah Soltan, who was among those sentenced to death. [Continue reading…]

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‘If Tunisia fails, you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century’

In the wake of last week’s attack at the national museum in the heart of Tunis, Nicholas Noe writes: Tunisia is, quite simply, a country unable to protect the real progress it has made over the last four years. Its people are not familiar with violent conflict, its army isn’t ready, and its body politic is deeply and often personally divided, despite the statements over the last 24 hours about national unity.

Most crucially, however, the security services in general — especially when it comes to the preponderant Interior Ministry — are ill equipped and ill trained for the kind of conflict that they are now likely to face. Perhaps the commanders directing today’s attack were betting on this. A heavy-handed response on the domestic scene (which is likely, largely as a result of the neglect of security sector reform over the past four years) will probably entail a violent counter-reaction within Tunisia, even though the real enemy lies in its strategic depth, waiting for the right moment, just beyond the country’s borders.

In one particularly prescient speech, the recently defeated president of Tunisia warned Europe and the United States about neglecting Tunisia and specifically about the core need for rebooting and building-out the security sector. “The military didn’t have any training or any arms for 30 years,” former President Moncef Marzouki told a conference last summer. “We need about 12 helicopters, Blackhawks, and we need them now. We also need devices for night vision and communications” to allow Tunisia to get through the upcoming elections. “If Tunisia fails,” he concluded, “you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century.” [Continue reading…]

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For these women, reading is a daring act

Most of us take for granted that we can read, say, the street signs outside of our house. But for an overwhelming number of women in the Arab world, basic literacy is not a given. That’s why in 2009, photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak began “I Read, I Write,” a series that documents the state of women’s education across Arab states. Having struggled to be able to attend college herself, the Palestinian refugee sees education as the key to a woman’s financial independence.

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From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria

Mona El-Naggar reports: He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.

“You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.”

Mr. Aly raised his son, Islam Yaken, in Heliopolis, a middle-class Cairo neighborhood with tended gardens and trendy coffee shops, and sent him to a private school, where he studied in French. As a young man, Mr. Yaken wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.

“Surely, the holiday won’t be complete without a picture with one of the dogs’ corpses,” Mr. Yaken, now 22 and fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, wrote in a Twitter post in July, during Ramadan.

The West is struggling to confront the rise of Islamic extremism and the brutality committed in the name of religion. But it is not alone in trying to understand how this has happened — why young men raised in homes that would never condone violence, let alone coldblooded murder, are joining the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. It is a phenomenon that is as much a threat to Muslim nations as to the West, if not more so, as thousands of young men volunteer as foot soldiers, ready to kill and willing to die. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s Arab spring: The revolution that ate its children

Chris Stephen reports: “It was better under Gaddafi,” says the young Libyan student, studying the froth bubbling over the top of his cappuccino in a cafe in Tunis as he contemplates the revolution that swept Muammar Gaddafi from power four years ago. “I never thought to say this before, I hated him, but things were better then. At least we had security.”

Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of that revolution but nobody is celebrating. Egyptian air strikes now hammering Islamic State positions in the east of the country, in response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, is a further twist in an already grim civil war. Four years ago the student picked up a gun and joined rebel militias. Now he wishes he had stayed home.

“If I had that time again, I would not join [the rebels],” he says. Like many of his former comrades, he has left the country, but won’t give his name, fearing retribution against his family back home.

“In the past, we would have a party for the anniversary of the revolution, but not this time,” says Ashraf Abdul-Wahab, a journalist. “A lot of people tell you it was better under Gaddafi, that the revolution was a mistake. What they mean is, things are worse now than they were then.”

Libya’s Arab spring was a bloody affair, ending with the killing of Gaddafi, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. His death saw the rebel militias turn on each other in a mosaic of turf wars. Full-scale civil war came last summer, when Islamist parties saw sharp defeats in elections the United Nations had supervised, in the hope of bringing peace to the country. Islamists and their allies rebelled against the elected parliament and formed the Libya Dawn coalition, which seized Tripoli. The new government fled to the eastern city of Tobruk and fighting has since raged across the country.

With thousands dead, towns smashed and 400,000 homeless, the big winner is Isis, which has expanded fast amid the chaos. Egypt, already the chief backer of government forces, has now joined a three-way war between government, Libya Dawn and Isis.

It is all a long way from the hopes of the original revolutionaries. With Africa’s largest oil reserves and just six million people to share the bounty, Libya in 2011 appeared set for a bright future. “We thought we would be the new Dubai, we had everything,” says a young activist who, like the student, prefers not to give her name. “Now we are more realistic.”

Just why Libya’s Arab spring went so badly wrong is a matter of hot debate. Some blame Nato for not following up with political support after its air campaign; some argue that it was the lack of institutions to make democracy work, or Libya’s atomised tribal structure that makes cooperation hard and magnifies distrust. Many have simply given up.

“So many of the revolutionaries of four years ago have gone to ground, they have fled, ” says Michel Cousins, editor of the English-language Libya Herald newspaper. “They say a revolution eats its children.” [Continue reading…]

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How Sisi dictates

Tom Stevenson writes: It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.

The US is not alone in this. When Shinzo Abe visited Cairo last month he spoke of the ‘high esteem’ in which the Japanese government holds its relationship with Sisi, and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in development loans. Diplomatic support from Europe, which suffered minor interruptions when the repression peaked late in the summer of 2013, has largely been restored. In addition to visiting the UN General Assembly, Sisi has been received on official visits to the Vatican, Davos, Rome and Paris: little or nothing has been said about routine human rights abuses, let alone the Rabaa massacre or the mass imprisonment and torture of dissidents.

When David Cameron held a meeting with Sisi in New York in September he spoke of ‘Egypt’s pivotal role in the region’ and its importance to British policy. ‘Both economically and in the fight against Islamist extremism’, he said, Egypt was a crucial ally and the UK was ‘keen to expand practical partnerships’. Cameron urged the president ‘to ensure human rights are respected’; he was much more specific on the point that Egyptian state debts to Britain’s international oil companies should be promptly repaid. The British embassy now issues reports with titles like ‘Egypt: Open for Business?’ and last month’s UK investment delegation to Cairo was the biggest in a decade. Western leaders – as Sisi well knows – have very little interest in upsetting Egypt, strategically located as it is between the world’s major energy-producing region and the developed world. The West appears to see no contradiction in supporting the ‘stability’ of the Sisi regime at a time when the Egyptian population is suffering from the extreme instability that comes with mass arrests and torture. [Continue reading…]

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The surprising alliance that explains Yemen’s political collapse

Peter Salisbury writes: Twelve months ago, Yemeni interim president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi stood in front of foreign diplomats and political grandees at Sanaa’s Republican Palace. He declared his country’s political transition to democracy an “unprecedented success.”

In 2011, Yemen’s Arab Spring had threatened to push the country into a debilitating conflict. But remarkably, a deal brokered by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council prevented a bloody civil war. Longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down; Hadi was tasked with overseeing peace talks and the creation of a new constitution.

Initially, these talks went surprisingly well. After decades of instability, a stable, peaceful democracy seemed possible if not probable. Yemen became the last glimmer of hope for Arab countries that had suffered through 2011′s roiling unrest. As Danya Greenfield of the Atlantic Council wrote, achieving consensus of any kind after such an acrimonious period was a “remarkable achievement.”

Today, no one is hopeful. The much-vaunted “Yemen model” for political transition, once mooted as a possible solution for Iraq, Libya and Syria, has been broken beyond repair. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt: Power, the January 25 revolutionaries, and responsibility

H.A. Hellyer writes: During the 18-day uprising in 2011, the revolutionaries gained a certain type of power. Their theoretical perspective, though imprecise, became manifest through popular mobilization. With that, the revolutionaries were able to fundamentally disrupt the workings of the state, provoking and forcing it to change direction, resulting in the removal of Mubarak. At the same time, they also missed the opportunity to harness and develop that power.

In 2011, when the military’s transitional road map was put to a referendum, the revolutionaries had considerable political capital. That capital, however, was not capitalized upon. Revolutionaries generally mobilized for a “no” vote, but provided little in the way of a plausible alternative. They lost the vote. Their failure to properly express a well-developed political vision meant they missed a key opportunity to set the agenda of the post-Mubarak period.

A year later, the revolutionaries had the option of coalescing around a single candidate for presidential elections. It is likely that such a candidate would have prevailed. Instead, the revolutionary vote was split, leading to a run-off between Mubarak’s last prime minister, and the non-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood. Some will claim the revolutionaries played a critical role in that run-off, by ensuring the former regime candidate lost. They did – but the very occurrence of such an abysmal run-off would have been impossible had there been a single, pro-January 25 revolution candidate.

Arising from that election was a presidency that the revolutionaries eventually, and correctly, opposed. Pro-revolutionary figures were the first to demand presidential elections: a laudable, democratic escape route from the prevailing political impasse, with revolutionaries en masse endorsing the demand. There were, however, other, less scrupulous forces that opposed the Brotherhood’s presidency. The key political party opposition umbrella was the National Salvation Front, which later backed the Tamarod group that called for the June 30 protests. More of the revolutionaries should have focused more intently on pressing Front members to distinguish themselves and the Front from more insidious forces, as well as interrogating Tamarod and its backers.

In short, at a time that could have made a critical difference, the revolutionaries did not realize the need to take initiative. As the protests to fulfill the democratic demand for presidential elections drew nearer, it was only a small group of revolutionaries that were dubious about the outcome. The rest merely made various public calls against military intervention when they should have focused on holding the main umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, to that anti-intervention principle as a condition, and established protocols to be followed if that intervention happened. That was their only leverage. [Continue reading…]

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Shaima El Sabbagh and Sondos Reda Abu Bakr: Protesters killed in Egypt on eve of #Jan25 uprising anniversary

AFP: A female demonstrator was killed in clashes with Egyptian police during a rare leftwing protest in central Cairo Saturday, the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, an official said.

Shaima al-Sabbagh, who friends said was 34 and the mother of a five-year-old boy, died of birdshot wounds, a health ministry spokesman said.

Fellow protesters said she was hit by birdshot when police fired to disperse the march.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said Sabbagh’s death was being investigated and vowed that “whoever committed a mistake will be punished, whoever he may be.”

A senior interior ministry official denied police had used birdshot to disperse the protest.

“No weapons such as birdshot or rubber bullets were used, it was a small protest that did not require the use of such weapons,” an aide to the interior minister, Abdel Fattah Osman, told AFP.

“Only two tear gas canisters were fired.”

The clash took place hours before state television aired a pre-recorded speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to mark the fourth anniversary of the popular uprising.

“I salute all our martyrs, from the beginning of January 25 (2011) until now,” said Sisi.

Al Jazeera: An Egyptian student was killed during clashes between anti-government protesters and residents in the coastal city of Alexandria, as demonstrations gathered pace days before the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, identified the dead woman on Friday on its Facebook page as 17-year-old Sondos Rida Abu Bakr and accused security forces of shooting her during a demonstration, Reuters news agency reported.

A security official in Alexandria said several people were wounded on Friday in clashes between protesters and local residents but denied that security forces had opened fire to disperse demonstrators.

At least 20 people were also arrested in Alexandria on Friday and 68 the previous day, security sources said.

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Are more Arabs becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme?

Koert Debeuf writes: With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.

Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.

The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.

The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.

Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists. [Continue reading…]

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Four years after the Egyptian revolution

Thanassis Cambanis writes: In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and [President Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.

[Basem] Kamel [one of the leaders of the revolution] has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.

He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.

“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”

That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.

Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid. [Continue reading…]

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Give democratic Tunisia the U.S. support it needs and deserves

Vance Serchuk writes: Tunisia is rightly hailed as the lone success story of the Arab Spring: the only country that has threaded a path from the uprisings of 2011 to genuine multiparty democracy today. Yet the future of freedom in Tunisia is far from assured. With the election of a new parliament and president in recent weeks, the most important experiment in Arab democracy is entering a difficult and potentially perilous new phase — one in which greater U.S. support and attention are urgently needed.

Tunisians are quick to cite a litany of challenges that could still derail their transition, including an unreformed economy that generates too few jobs and a persistent threat from terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia. There’s also the failed state next door in Libya, a volcano of Syria-like potential that threatens to kick up a cloud of instability over its neighbors.

Yet easily the most significant question facing Tunisia concerns its new elected leadership and its commitment to democratic principles, human rights and inclusive, tolerant governance. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia’s new president pledges reconciliation

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Tunisia is still a ray of hope for the Middle East

Berny Sèbe writes: Let’s face it: once a term laden with hope for the Middle East, the idea of an “Arab Spring” has become merely depressing.

Assorted humanitarian disasters have followed in its wake – think of the unspeakable violence by the so-called Islamic State, or the disintegration of Libya’s social and political fabric. In Egypt, the die-hard habit of letting the army choose the country’s rulers has returned. Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, revolts nipped in the bud – or repressed with the help of muscular police forces – have been silenced for good.

And yet, the cradle of the Arab Spring is once again leading the way. With the peaceful election of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia, the first Arab country where popular protests proved to be enough to get rid of an autocrat, has just shown the world that an orderly management of a revolution was always an option on the table.

In four short years, Tunisia has gone through the entire cycle of ousting an apparently lifelong president, electing a constituent assembly, producing a new constitution, and organising a round of fully democratic legislative and presidential elections.

It has successfully navigated the murky waters of post-revolutionary instability, when the future of a country becomes so open that the temptation to use political violence can be much stronger than the discipline needed to bow to the verdict of ballot boxes. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia: Cheers and doubts

Robin Wright writes: The celebratory honking and shouting on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the elegant boulevard that runs through Tunisia’s capital, began within seconds of the announcement that Sunday’s election had produced the country’s first democratically elected President—the culmination of an uneasy transition that began, in 2011, with the Jasmine Revolution. In a tight runoff, Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently turned eighty-eight, was declared the winner. He is Tunisia’s most experienced politician; he has served as defense minister, foreign minister, and interior minister. But these positions were held under Tunisia’s two most autocratic leaders, and Essebsi personifies the old guard—known by critics as the Remnants.

Tunisia has emerged as a model for Arab nations. Its three elections since October, held in unheated schools around the country, have been serious and well run—especially compared to the flagrant vote-buying and vote-rigging elsewhere in the Middle East. Tunisians “raised the bar of what is possible,” Ken Dryden, the former Canadian M.P. (and hockey star), who served as an international monitor for the election, said. “They have done their part.” Yet the country, with a population of eleven million, has also provided roughly three thousand fighters—more than any other nation—to the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front as they sweep through Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia’s government says it has prevented almost nine thousand more from joining.) “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” Karim Helali, of Afek, or Horizons, a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young people, told me.

Essebsi defeated a human-rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed to serve as interim President in 2011, while the country wrote a new constitution. The process took three years. During that time, Tunisia grappled with the assassination of two leading politicians, the rise of an extremist underground, attacks on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis, and thousands of labor strikes. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s descent into chaos: Warring clans and its impact on regional stability

Jamestown Terrorism Monitor: Since the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011 and the collapse of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya (Republic of the Masses), Libya has fallen into a process of constant and ever deeper chaos, which has lately reached a new climax. This conflict, however, has its roots in some specific features characterizing Libya as a “nation-state”: while Libya may be a nation-state on paper, it has yet to become a proper and unified national society. Indeed, the very roots of the revolution in Libya lie in the significant structural, regional and territorial imbalances that have characterized Libya since its establishment and the dominance of parochial and narrow interests.

Indeed, regional and political imbalances – the neglected east and south against the stronger and richer west – were key in setting the landscape in which the Libyan revolution took place. Revolts started in Benghazi and moved east to west, with a long military stalemate occurring in Ras Lanuf, historically a sort of informal cultural border dividing Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Geographically, this was similar to what happened with the 1969 revolution. That revolution was a reaction against the dominance of the east, Benghazi and the royal circle. Among the 12 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, which led the revolution and then acted as the supreme authority in Libya between 1969 and 1975, only four were from the east.

Moreover, another factor explaining the complete collapse of order in post-Qaddafi Libya is the complete lack of any reliable state institution. Despite being the “Republic of the Masses”, Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya was essentially based on his sole, complete personal rule: 42 years under this system left Libya as a sort of institutional desert following the collapse of the regime. The regime overlapped the state and as a result the boundaries, both conceptual and organizational, between the two became soon nonexistent. That explains why, in Libya, the fall of the regime caused the fall of the state, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where the regimes, not the state, collapsed. However, this lack of institutional capacity must be seen in a longer-term perspective: that was a structural feature of Libya as a nation-state since its foundation. Libya at independence did not have a stable state apparatus and oil and external revenue allowed the rulers to avoid building a bureaucratic state, moving from the rentier patronage of King Idris and the Senussi monarchy to the distributive republic led by Qaddafi. [Continue reading…]

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Will Tunisia pass the transition test?

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