Frederic Wehrey writes: In the crowded trauma room of a threadbare hospital, a procession of bedraggled soldiers files in, bearing a grim catalogue of wounds: shrapnel in the neck, gunshots to the chest, burned legs. Fierce fighting erupted here last week as a coalition of army, police, tribal militias and neighborhood volunteer forces launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Doom” to evict jihadist and Islamic State forces from their strongholds.
It is a battle that many residents say has been largely forgotten and misconstrued by the international community. As Libya’s rival governments — an internationally recognized one based in the eastern city in Tobruk and another in the western capital of Tripoli — debate the final draft of a United Nations-brokered peace plan, the mood in Benghazi is one of skepticism and distrust. People here believe the U.N. talks are meant to legitimize Islamists in Tripoli, whom they accuse of supporting Benghazi’s jihadist forces.
At a rally I attended for two slain activists, the eastern government’s minister for culture and media struck a defiant note, lambasting the United States Navy for waiting offshore but doing nothing against the Islamic State, and accusing Israel of supplying weapons to the jihadists. The audience roared with applause when he mentioned the name of Operation Doom’s architect: Gen. Khalifa Hifter. [Continue reading…]
Nouriel Roubini writes: With the US on the way to achieving energy independence, there is a risk that America and its Western allies will consider the Middle East less strategically important. That belief is wishful thinking: a burning Middle East can destabilize the world in many ways.
First, some of these conflicts may yet lead to an actual supply disruption, as in 1973, 1979, and 1990. Second, civil wars that turn millions of people into refugees will destabilize Europe economically and socially, which is bound to hit the global economy hard. And the economies and societies of frontline states like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already under severe stress from absorbing millions of such refugees, face even greater risks.
Third, prolonged misery and hopelessness for millions of Arab young people will create a new generation of desperate jihadists who blame the West for their despair. Some will undoubtedly find their way to Europe and the US and stage terrorist attacks.
So, if the West ignores the Middle East or addresses the region’s problems only through military means (the US has spent $2 trillion in its Afghan and Iraqi wars, only to create more instability), rather than relying on diplomacy and financial resources to support growth and job creation, the region’s instability will only worsen. Such a choice would haunt the US and Europe – and thus the global economy – for decades to come. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: For more than a year, Libyans have been watching their politicians shuttle between foreign capitals on rounds of peace talks, workshops and conferences in search of a solution to the worsening chaos at home. At one recent event in the Tunisian capital, frustrations at the slow progress were evident in the heartfelt questions and statements from the Libyan refugees in the audience.
“We are a small country, and we need help,” Ahmed Werfalli, a businessman and activist, told the American ambassador during one panel discussion. “We were united against dictatorship, and now we are killing each other.”
Libyans are struggling with a problem that typically emerges after a bloody regime change: how to reassemble a functioning country after its brittle, autocratic and repressive government has been fractured and replaced with warring factions.
Many Libyans have taken refuge in neighboring Tunisia, forced out by the violence and doubting that the main protagonists will end their power struggle, even if a United Nations-sponsored peace agreement is signed soon. They are calling for greater international involvement to help end the conflict. [Continue reading…]
International Business Times reports: Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s name is well-known in eastern Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of the country’s Shia minority and the scene of a burgeoning protest movement.
Ali, 21, is the nephew of Shia cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was jailed and sentenced to death for his fiery speeches against Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud dynasty, which has controlled the Arabian Peninsula since the 1930s. Sheikh al-Nimr was detained and then sentenced to death on terrorism charges as well as “waging war on God” for his speech during anti-government protests in Qatif, a city that saw massive street protests followed by a bloody crackdown by the Saudi authorities in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Most of the 2.7 million Shia in Saudi Arabia live in al-Ahsa and al-Qatif districts in the country’s eastern province, which also contains the bulk of the kingdom’s oil. Ruled by a Sunni monarchy and under a strict interpretation of Islam, Wahabbism, Shia are often portrayed as heretics or agents of Riyadh’s major rival, Iran. [Continue reading…]
Thanassis Cambanis writes: Early in the Tahrir Square revolution, a group of retired Egyptian generals sat poolside at Cairo’s Gezira Club and worried about whether the country’s ruling elite could survive a popular uprising. It was February 2011, a week before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Millions of freshly politicized Egyptians had already taken to the streets. And yet, some of these career security men were unfazed.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets. [Continue reading…]
Basheer Nafi writes: In spite of mounting evidence that the Iranian influence was in decline, many concluded that the nuclear agreement would provide the Iranian expansionist project with what it needs to become an invincible power. So, where is the fault in the reading of the Iranian expansionist project, or in Tehran’s own assessment of its power?
This, first of all, is the Middle East, the post-World War I Middle East, where power equations do not last for long and where the underpinnings of power keep changing just like quick sand. It is true that the Iranian expansion coincided with American failings in the Middle East, followed by a relative American withdrawal, as well as a decline of the regional Egyptian and Saudi influence; but it has also coincided with an active Turkish return to the neighbouring Middle East.
Additionally, it is true that the fall of the Taliban and Saddam regimes was quite swift, but it is also true that the Iraqi resistance to the occupation did not wait long before emerging, and that the Taliban were soon to regroup and lead the resistance against the occupation and its allies in Kabul. The problem with the Iranian expansionist project, right from the start, was that it did not take into consideration the continuously changing nature of the map of power and influence in the region.
Secondly, the Iranians chose in most of their expansionist steps to stand by the minorities, whether political or sectarian, in the face of the majority, not only the majority in every single country but also the majority at the level of the region as a whole.
The peoples of the region were, for several decades, viewing Iran with admiration and sympathy, especially when Iranian policy was characterised with standing by the people and their aspirations. Yet, Iran was changing rapidly, where nationalistic and sectarian ambitions replaced the policies of pan-Islamic solidarity. Iran encouraged the emergence of a sectarian hegemonic regime in Iraq, and put its entire weight behind the continuation of the hegemony of a sectarian and political minority over Syria and its people.
It also supported the foolish Houthi plot to seize control of Yemen. Without a single exception, Iran’s regional policies were to generate civil wars and ethnic and sectarian cleansing, not to mention the tragic destruction of peoples and their resources. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: [Regional] destruction is painfully visible every day in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, and Yemen, at the very least. This spectacle of multiple fragmenting states is bad enough; it is made even worse by the latest troubling development — it is too early to call it a trend — which is the spectacle of repeated bomb attacks and killings of government officials and security forces in three of the most important regional powers that should be stabilizing forces in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the ongoing war in Yemen, and the erratic battle against “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria, Iraq and other tiny pockets of ISIS presence around the region, the massive refugee flows and the stresses they cause, and the dangerous sectarian dimensions of some of the confrontations underway, and we end up with a very complex and violent regional picture that cannot possibly be explained primarily as a consequence of Iranian-Saudi rivalries.
A more complete explanation of the battered Arab region today must include accounting for several other mega-tends: the impact of the last twenty-fix years of non-stop American military attacks, threats and sanctions from Libya to Afghanistan; the radicalizing impact of sixty-seven years of non-stop Zionist colonization and militarism against Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs; the hollowing out of Arab economic and governance systems by three generations of military-led, amateurish and corruption-riddled mismanaged governance that deprived citizens of their civic and political rights and pushed them to assert instead the primacy of their sectarian and tribal identities; and, the catalytic force of the 2003 Anglo-American led war on Iraq that opened the door for all these forces and others yet — like lack of water, jobs, and electricity that make normal daily life increasingly difficult — to combine into the current situation of widespread national polarization and violence.
Most of these drivers of the current regional condition have little to do with Iranian-Saudi sensitivities, and much more to do with decades of frail statehood, sustained and often violent Arab authoritarianism, denied citizenship, distorted development, and continuous regional and global assaults. [Continue reading…]
When a car bomb detonated outside a security building in Cairo on August 20 it marked a new turn in the long-running series of violent attacks on the Egyptian capital. The explosion wounded approximately 27 people, six of whom are policemen, but there appear to have been no deaths.
The attack has been claimed by a group calling itself the Sinai Province (SP) which is affiliated to Islamic State (IS). SP has stated that the bomb was in response to the execution of six of its members accused of a similar attack in Cairo last year. Though there were no deaths this time, the quickening rate of such attacks shows that al-Sisi’s measures against terrorism have been grossly ineffective.
This bomb is in fact the latest of a long series of violent attacks that focus particularly on Egyptian police and security forces, which since 2013 have gradually moved from the Sinai province to the country’s capital.
Most of these recent blasts have been claimed by the Islamist militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis based in the Sinai desert, which also identifies itself as a branch of IS under the name Sinai Peninsula (SP).
This unprecedented attack speaks to the explosive growth of Egypt’s array of insurgent forces and their violent opposition to al-Sisi, which the state’s authoritarian security measures have failed to curb.
Omar Ashour writes: “His leg is broken. I cannot leave him here,” said a doctor in makeshift hospital in Rabaa al-Adawiya square to a special forces officer.
“Don’t worry. I will break his heart,” replied the officer before putting a bullet in the injured protester’s chest.
After several national security meetings in July and August of 2013, a group of military, intelligence, police generals and civilian politicians appointed by the military, decided to storm massive sit-ins in Cairo’s Rabaa and Giza’s Nahda squares protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president on July 3, 2013.
The exact death toll of the crackdown is still unknown.
This is partly due to the nature of the current political climate and the hurdles imposed by the ruling regime on collecting data about the massacres.
But this is also due to other factors, such as burned dead bodies and fears of victims’ families of going to the morgues or hospitals.
Following the massacre, the health ministry claimed that over 600 people were killed.
The Muslim Brotherhood maintained the death toll was over 2,500.
Human Rights Watch estimated the death toll to be over 1,000.
And everything happened in less than 10 hours. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A dozen police officers, one with an assault rifle across his knees, guard the presidential mausoleum in this seaside resort, easily outnumbering the foreign visitors on a recent morning.
It was here, the hometown of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, that a teenager once tried to blow himself up amid a group of tourists. The attack failed — his bomb did not explode and a tour guide tripped up the would-be bomber as he tried to escape — but it was only by luck that disaster was averted.
That was two years ago. More recently, despite ample warnings, Tunisia has had less luck in the face of a growing terrorist threat. Gunmen trained in Libya and linked to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda killed 22 people at a national museum in the heart of Tunis, the capital, in March and 38 tourists along a beach in the nearby town of Sousse in June.
Those attacks have provoked a widening security crackdown, and left Tunisians wondering if their country can withstand the onslaught of terrorism without giving up the tentative freedoms they — alone in the region — earned with their revolution that set off the Arab Spring more than four years ago. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Just three miles from the gleaming center of town, a local journalist in a rusted, old compact car swerves around trash dumpsters set on fire to deter police cars from entering the impoverished, restive Shiite neighborhoods.
The car stops at a cafe with a view of a small group of protesters, the embers in Bahrain of the Middle East uprisings known as the Arab Spring. The discontent is rarely seen on the local television or radio channels, which are all state-owned, or in the four major daily newspapers, all but one of which is aligned with the Sunni ruling family.
Customers enter the cafe rubbing their eyes and complaining about another night of tear gas. In a corner, a small group of demoralized Bahraini journalists who are no longer able to safely practice their craft gathers to commiserate and pass updates about colleagues in prison or exile.
Reading through the newspapers, former sports reporter Faisal Hayat, 41, takes note of three legal cases against the media. One is his, a 2007 defamation suit brought against him by a former sports minister. Hayat says it is a nuisance suit to ruin him financially. Then there are charges against a newspaper editor filed by the Ministry of Information. Finally, there is the three-year sentence of blogger and activist Zainab Khawaja, a.k.a Angry Arabiya, in part for tearing up a picture of the king in public. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: The dramatic events surrounding the intense negotiations for a deal on Iran’s nuclear industry and the sanctions on it deserve immense attention because of what they tell us about two pivotal dynamics in the Middle East, namely the role of Iran in the region and the world and the more mature attitude of the United States towards countries and movements that it disagrees with, like Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. Yet, despite the momentous impact of an agreement on Iran, the dynamic this week that I am watching much more closely is the offensive launched Monday by the Iraqi government to retake Anbar Province from the hands of “Islamic State” (IS). Anbar Province’s convoluted and fast changing condition in the past decade is a sign of wider stresses that plague Iraq, including the province’s successive anti-American, anti-Islamic State in Mesopotamia, and anti-Baghdad rebellions, its gradual loss to IS during the past year, and Baghdad’s current strategy to return it to the fold of the Iraqi state.
What happens in Iraq in the coming months and years matters dearly to the entire Arab world because Anbar’s turbulent recent history and its current condition manifest the most fundamental and crucial issues that still challenge most Arab states, and are likely to determine if they persist as sovereign, stable states. These issues relate to the ability of citizens and state to negotiate a social contract that ensures good governance and equitable participation and life opportunities for all citizens, which in turn would guarantee stability and security, and probably also prosperity, given Iraq’s immense natural and human resources. A social contract that meets these criteria has evaded every single Arab country in the past century — only because not a single Arab country (before Tunisia since 2011) ever attempted to credibly engage its citizens in the process of shaping public life, governance, participation, accountability, national values, and state policies. The test that Iraq and all Arab countries face is how to allow populations composed of several different ethnic and religious groups to work together within the context of the institutions and national integrity of their state. [Continue reading…]
Mohamad Bazzi writes: On June 29, Egypt’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing as he left his home in Cairo. He was the most senior official to be assassinated since Islamic militants launched an insurgency two years ago after the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
The assassination of the prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, is a tragedy but it’s not surprising. Egypt spiraled into a cycle of state-sanctioned violence, repression and vengeance as soon as the military removed Morsi from power in July 2013. The new military-backed government launched an aggressive campaign to suppress all political opponents, hunt down leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled after the coup and undo many of the gains made during the 2011 uprising that toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
That is the danger many in the Arab world and in the West failed to grasp when they remained silent after Egypt’s coup: while authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that the only way to achieve political power is through violence.
On June 16, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty against Morsi, the first Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. He was initially sentenced to death in May, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the military coup. If the former president is ultimately hanged, it would be a grave miscarriage of justice that would make Morsi a martyr for millions throughout the Muslim world.
Beyond Morsi’s fate, the mass death sentences send a dangerous signal to Islamists throughout the region: that election results will not be respected. The Brotherhood’s recent experience in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilize to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule. Ultimately, Egypt cannot be a viable democracy without the Brotherhood’s participation. [Continue reading…]
IB Times reports: The United States said on Monday that it would lift its ban on providing security and military aid to Bahrain, which was imposed after the Gulf state cracked down on Shia-led protests in 2011. U.S. officials said the decision was taken because Bahrain had made meaningful reforms since then.
However, Washington did not specify the weapons or military equipment that would be sent to the country.
Dozens of people died when the government clamped down on protesters in 2011, who were demanding that the ruling Sunni family end its discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population. [Continue reading…]
Ian Black writes: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.
It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).
Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.
I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.
Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak. [Continue reading…]
Marc Lynch writes: On Friday, WikiLeaks and the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar released just over 60,000 out of a half-million leaked diplomatic cables from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The immediate response to the announcement followed a predictable script. First, elites sympathetic to Saudi Arabia rushed to minimize the importance of the cables, declaring (remarkably quickly, given the number of documents to be perused) that there was nothing new or interesting to be found in the release. Then, a legion of online Arabs dug into the archive and posted titillating nuggets online, while media outlets began reporting the major finds. Now, those documents are circulating widely through social media, dominating public discourse and could continue to do so for quite some time, with more than 400,000 more documents slated for release over the course of the month of Ramadan.
It’s easy to be jaded by the routinized script of such leaks, by the pugnacious politics surrounding WikiLeaks itself, by the limited impact of previous leaks, or by the toxic public discourse surrounding the Middle East’s sectarian and partisan conflicts. What’s more, the leaks can have only a limited direct political effect in the current highly polarized and collectively repressive regional environment. Don’t expect the cables to cause uprisings in Riyadh or the expulsion of Saudi diplomats from Arab capitals anytime soon. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of these leaks. They are likely to matter more than many of the previous such leaks because of how they resonate with two of the most potent issues in today’s Middle East: the regional proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran; and fierce Arab regime efforts to control an inexorably expanding Arab public sphere and erase the gains of the 2010-2011 uprisings. [Continue reading…]