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Lighting the fire

A poem by Yahya Labidi
  

What is to give light

What is to give light must endure
burning, a man once said
Another man became the matchstick
that set a nation aflame

But fire, and its appetite, cannot be 
calculated, like freedom
Injustice and desperation make men 
combustible, like dry wood

When words lose their meaning
and an entire people their voice –
so they can neither laugh nor scream –
death and life begin to taste the same

From Tunis, to Egypt, to Lebanon to Yemen
the light from a burning man proved catching
And those with nothing to lose, or offer, but bodies
fanned the embers of their hopes into a blazing dream.

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Posted by Yahya Labidi, 31 Jan 2011. Comment.


Egypt: a day of deadlock

The Mubarak regime still doesn't get it. Nothing illustrates its attitude more clearly than the decision yesterday to send F-16 warplanes roaring low over the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square, in the expectation that they would scurry away like frightened sheep.

Instead, the protesters stood their ground and chanted more loudly. Some of them arranged their bodies to spell out the words "Down with Mubarak" – big enough to be read from the air.

Meanwhile the regime's attempt to stop al-Jazeera's minute-by-minute TV coverage failed miserably and the "night-time" curfew (starting at 4pm and due to start at 3pm today) was widely ignored.

Today, in an effort to restore a semblance of normality, the police will be back on the streets – reportedly with instructions not to confront the protesters. They had been withdrawn over the weekend, apparently to facilitate looting by the regime's thugs and thus provide the excuse for a crackdown or get people pleading with Mubarak to save them. That move was thwarted by the public, who organised their own unofficial policing.

One of the most striking things about the uprising so far has been the resourcefulness of the protesters and their determination. At the same time though, on the other side, we have President Mubarak – equally implacable and determined to stay put.

The result, for now, is deadlock. But the deadlock cannot be broken by the army or the police shooting and teargassing people on the streets. At some point there will have to be movement on the political front – and that is not going to happen instantly. (It's worth repeating that the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia took four weeks; the Mubarak regime is a tougher nut to crack and the uprising began less than a week ago.)

There seems to be widespread recognition, even by some of the regime stalwarts, that Egypt is moving towards "transition". The argument, basically, is whether it will be a transition supervised by Mubarak or not. The protesters' fear is that a transition under Mubarak will merely bring a change of faces without real change in the system they are protesting about. As far as the protesters are concerned, that is a deal-breaker.

Mohamed ElBaradei offered the regime a carrot yesterday by putting himself forward as "leader" of the opposition. Like him or not, this means a channel is now open for dialogue if and when the regime is ready to talk – though on the protesters' side that can't happen until Mubarak goes.

The US will also have to shift its stance. Obama, of course, is in a tricky position. He talks about the "aspirations of the Egyptian people" while at the same time having to contend with worried allies – especially Israel and the Arab autocrats – and American "opinion-formers" who expect Egypt to turn into an Islamic republic the moment Mubarak goes.

Over the weekend, Obama consulted the leaders of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain about their aspirations for Egypt – which at present seem to be a higher American priority than the aspirations of the protesters themselves.

The time has come for the US and other countries to stop making supportive noises about the old tyrant (despite anything Israel may say to the contrary) and to stop buying into Mubarak's favourite line of defence: aprθs moi, le dιluge.

Yesterday, an open letter to Obama – signed by a large number of American academics involved with foreign policy and the Middle East – urged him to take a more robust stand:

If you seek, as you said Friday, "political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people", your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants ... 

In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 Jan 2011. Comment.


Mubarak clings on as his power ebbs

Just a brief post to take stock of the situation in Egypt this morning.

President Mubarak is still clinging to what remains of his power. Yesterday, he appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice-president (a post that he had kept vacant for the last 30 years). At the very least, this suggests Mubarak now recognises that his reign is coming to an end.

Mubarak also named Ahmad Shafiq, a former commander of the Egyptian air force, as his new prime minister. The full new cabinet is expected to be announced today.

There are persistent reports that Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, have fled to London but I haven't seen any definite confirmation of this. Similarly, there's a story that 19 private planes carrying prominent Egyptian businessmen left for Dubai overnight.

On the streets, something strange happened yesterday: the police melted away and looters moved in. There were repeated allegations that the looters were in fact plainclothes police and other members of the security apparatus whose aim was to cause mayhem and provide the excuse for a harsh crackdown. However, Egyptians responded by setting up their own neighbourhood protection committees – a move that seems to have been relatively effective. (There were similar stories of government-instigated looting during the latter stages of the Tunisian uprising.)

This morning there were reports of a stronger army presence on the streets of Cairo, especially around Tahrir Square, but it seems this may be limited to certain areas only and there are questions about whether the army is really capable of carrying out policing operations across the country.

Rumours have been circulating that the army will take a much tougher line with protesters today – what some are calling the Tiananmen Square option. However, I am sceptical about that. For one, thing, the US has warned strongly against it, and though Mubarak may not listen to Washington I think his commanders are more likely to. A couple of reports on Twitter say women are likely to be at the fore of today's protests "to give the men a rest". If so, that may also deter the military. Others point out that Suleiman and Shafik are old-style authoritarians who may stop at nothing in their efforts to salvage the situation.

For continuing TV coverage of the events, Al-Jazeera English, which can be watched online, is still the best option. For a text version, I recommend the Enduring America blog, which is run by 
Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at Birmingham University.

[QUICK UPDATE: The regime is now reported to have revoked al-Jazeera's licence and ordered its bureau to be closed. That won't stop it reporting but coverage of events on the streets will be more difficult.]

Finally, it is rare to find a truly perceptive article about the Middle East in the New York Times, but this one, by Anthony Shadid, hits the button. He writes:

For the first time in a generation, it is not religion, nor the adventures of a single leader, nor wars with Israel that have energised the region. Across Egypt and the Middle East, a somewhat nostalgic notion of a common Arab identity, intersecting with a visceral sense of what amounts to a decent life, is driving protests that have bound the region in a sense of a shared destiny.

He continues:

Rarely has there been a moment when the Middle East felt so interconnected, governments so unpopular and Arabs so overwhelmingly agreed on the demand for change, even as some worry about the aftermath in a place where alternatives to dictatorship have been relentlessly crushed ... The Middle East is being drawn together by economic woes and a shared resentment that people have been denied dignity and respect.

The issue here is the resurrection of a spirit of pan-Arabism after several decades when a sense of Islamic identity seemed to be supplanting Arab identity. That trend now appears to have been reversed.

Shadid mentions one example from Egypt where protesters replaced the old Brotherhood slogan, "Islam is the solution", with a new one: "Tunisia is the solution".

This shifting balance between Arab and Islamic identities is a central feature of what is happening in the Middle East today, and it's likely to generate some heated debate in the weeks and months to come.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 Jan 2011. Comment.


Mubarak: the exit strategy

With his plans to attend the Cairo Book Fair today regrettably disrupted, President Mubarak will instead spend the day choosing a new cabinet to replace the one he dismissed on television last night. 

But his sudden offer of "dialogue" after 30 years in power is not going to cut any ice with the protesters on the streets whom he laughably accused in his TV broadcast of being "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy the legitimacy" of Egypt's political system. Nor will his promise that "We will not backtrack on reforms". The people want him to go and will not be satisfied until he does, but he is not listening yet.

Meanwhile, what is the United States up to? Despite Hillary Clinton's claim last year that "I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family," and despite her call yesterday for Mubarak to "engage immediately" with the Egyptian people, there is no sign that the US is actually trying to keep the tyrant in power.

Yesterday's threat to cut American aid – "reviewing our assistance posture" as the White House spokesman put it – may even have been intended to help Mubarak on his way. Since the aid is mostly military, that will certainly give the Egyptian army cause to consider their position.

It seems to me, based on statements so far, that the US is focusing more on the post-Mubarak situation than on trying to save him. It is trying to engineer (and manipulate) a smooth transfer of power.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is of considerable strategic importance to the United States. While officially promoting freedom and democracy, the US wants an Egyptian government that can be relied upon to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, to keep the Suez canal open and cooperate internationally against terrorism. It is also probably seeking to allay fears in Israel which, despite being next door to Egypt, patently failed to see the trouble coming.

The subtext here, of course, is keeping the Muslim Brotherhood away from power, since as far as many Americans and Israelis are concerned, they are no different from al-Qaeda.

Personally, I think there's less to worry about on that score than many people imagine. As with the election of Hamas in Gaza, a lot of the Brotherhood's electoral support in Egypt can be considered as a protest vote against Mubarak and, once he is gone and the secular parties can operate more freely, that will start to wither.

The question now is how Mubarak – naturally stubborn and, at 82, extremely set in his ways – can be persuaded to leave. Once the Egyptian public have signalled their rejection of the new government (as they surely will), someone is going to have to tell him ... and my hunch is that it will be the military.

If so, that will bring the army to the fore, for the sake of "restoring order" if not actually running the country. Constitutionally speaking, (Article 84), the latter task should fall to the chair of the People's Assembly, with new presidential elections to be held within 60 days.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 Jan 2011. Comment.


Information lockdown in Egypt

Egypt went into information lockdown last night as the regime cut off internet access along with SMS and BlackBerry messaging ahead of today's demonstrations, with the apparent aim of hampering communications among the protesters. There are also reports of mobile phone systems being turned off selectively in some places.

One access route to the internet – Noor – is said to be still working because it is used by banks and the Stock Exchange. This chart shows the sudden decline in internet traffic yesterday.

The renesys blog gives some technical details of the internet shutdown and describes it as "an action unprecedented in Internet history" (there's also a more recent technical report from bgpmon here.) The Enduring America blog comments that "not even the Iranian regime, at the height of the challenge on the streets to its legitimacy, took such a step. It slowed down the Net to hinder communications and to try to monitor activists, but it never carried out a shutdown".

Rather than offering change (as advised by the United States), the Egyptian regime has clearly decided to try to tough it out. The extremity of the measures it is taking on the ground shows it is seriously worried and probably recognises that it is now engaged in a battle for survival. Even so, the regime is taking a huge gamble: the harder it cracks down, the more public anger it is likely to generate (as we saw in Tunisia). 

It's still hard to grasp the enormity of what is happening in Egypt. On Tuesday morning, I wrote about plans for the Police Day protests and included a note of caution. Although more than 80,000 Facebook users had declared their support, opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were less eager to give official backing. In any case, Egyptians had been protesting for years but their protests never really got anywhere. 

On Tuesday, though, something clicked and they poured out on to the streets in unprecedented numbers: it seemed that a tipping-point had been reached.

Today's demonstrations, unless the authorities have some new surprise up their sleeves, are likely to be even bigger. Some are talking of a million or more protesters.

The plan, as I understand it, is that after midday prayers people will go out in groups of 10 or more to the nearest square and, hopefully, join up with others. In theory, that should provide the security forces with the worst nightmare they have ever had.

The Atlantic has published details of a pamphlet circulating in Egypt which gives guidance for protesters. It advises:

1. Crowd together with friends and neighbours in residential streets far from the presence of security forces.

2. Cheer in the name of Egypt and the freedom of its people (cheer positively).

3. Organise residents of the buildings to join (in a positive manner).

4. Exit in groups into primary streets to gather as large a crowd as possible.

5. Sneak into important government buildings (with positive cheers) to occupy them.

Unconfirmed reports on Twitter claim that undercover police have been pouring petrol on the ground in Cairo squares, with the apparent intention of setting it alight if protesters try to enter.

There is a general expectation that today will be decisive, one way or the other. If the protesters win the day, it will set the course for a new Middle East: Egypt is not Tunisia – it is the most populous Arab country and a real heavyweight. The outcome will have even greater influence than it did in Tunisia.

My hunch, though, is that today will signal the start – in earnest – of the Egyptian revolution rather than its culmination. In Tunisia it took a month; Egypt is a much bigger fish and this has only been going for three days. The regime won't give up easily and will try to  fight on, even if mortally wounded.

But evaluating all the signs as honestly as I can, think Mohamed ElBaradei was right when he said yesterday that the situation has passed a point of no return. For all practical purposes, the Mubarak – father and son – era is finished and the only question left is whether or not its death throes will drag on until the presidential election scheduled for October.

Even so, I keep wondering if I might be wrong. I have read the article on Ynet assuring Israelis that it's going to be fine: that the friendly dictator will remain in place, that "nothing will be changing" in Egypt and that "when the situation calms down and the streets empty, those who provoked the 'day of fury' will be taken care of".

It's a point of view, and it's what always happened in the past. But I really can't see the situation calming down now until Mubarak goes. The atmosphere is electric – in a way I have never seen before. As Ahmed Moor writes in an article for al-Jazeera, "the Arabs are alive".

Where does the United States stand in all this? We know that it has helped to sustain the Mubarak regime over many years, and a lot of people believe it will continue to do so. 

Yesterday, a White House spokesman said: "This is not about taking sides. What is important is 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."

That is considerably less supportive than Mubarak, as a long-standing ally, would have expected. In fact, it suggests the US could be preparing to abandon him. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton 
also spoke of "not taking sides" in connection with Tunisia on January 11. Three days later, President Ben Ali fled..

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 Jan 2011. Comment.


Egypt: exaggeration or denial?

Al-Ahram's front page. Acknowledgement: The Angry Arab
  
In the absence of any noteworthy events in Egypt, the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper had to look further afield for its main front-page headline yesterday: "Widespread protests and disturbances in Lebanon". This is a classic example of the old-style Arab media sticking its head in the sand. 

For real information about what is happening in Egypt, hour by hour, I recommend the Enduring America blog. It includes lots of links to sources, plus photos and videos. Here is yesterday's compilation and here is the start of today's.

So far, mainstream reporting has focused heavily on events in a fairly small area of central Cairo – rightly, to some extent – but there is clearly a lot going on elsewhere. The situation in Suez seems to have turned especially nasty yesterday though details are rather scarce. The video below shows a police station in the city being burned.

On the whole, yesterday's events were less dramatic than on Tuesday, though there were reports of hundreds being arrested and, in many cases, beaten up too. These included a number of foreign journalists (a thoroughly stupid move on the regime's part). Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker recorded an amazing audio report from the back of a police van after his arrest.

Judging from comments on Twitter, the protesters' intention today is to keep the security forces busy, denying them rest before Friday, which is expected to be another big day of street demonstrations.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the reform campaigner, Nobel peace prize winner and holder of the Nile Sash (Egypt's highest honour), is expected to return to Egypt today, and it will be interesting to see what happens when he arrives. In an article for the Daily Beast, Elbaradei says:

The young people of Egypt have lost patience, and what you’ve seen in the streets these last few days has all been organised by them. I have been out of Egypt because that is the only way I can be heard. I have been totally cut off from the local media when I am there. But I am going back to Cairo, and back on to the streets because, really, there is no choice.

Writing on the Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani notes that president Mubarak has not uttered a word in public about the protests, leaving it to his foreign ministry spokesman to explain that they are being exaggerated by the media (we heard that before in Tunisia) and they prove that Egypt is democratic. I can't say Mubarak's silence surprises me. It took Ben Ali a full 10 days in Tunisia to get round to making a TV broadcast (the one that was interrupted by his phone ringing).

Access to the social media was blocked in Egypt for most of yesterday, though it was later unblocked – apparently as a result of pressure from the United States. The decision to block was a drastic move and probably shows how worried the regime is about Facebook, Twitter, etc. In a way, though, the decision to unblock is more interesting. I can't imagine the regime conceding to a polite American request very readily, and I'd love to know what was said in private. Did the State Department issue some kind of threat and, if so, what was it?

In a press conference yesterday, Hillary Clinton also urged the Egyptian authorities "not to prevent peaceful protests" and said:

"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."

Some will be disappointed that her remarks were not stronger but, for the time being, I think she has got it about right (despite her earlier remarks about Egypt being "stable"). Bush-style stridency from Washington could easily backfire and be used by the regime to discredit the protesters.

Clinton simply spelled out what vast numbers of Egyptians want. I don't suppose for a moment that she thinks Mubarak, as he comes to the end of his 30-year reign, can actually deliver it, but the message was probably addressed – at least in part – to the nervously watching autocrats in other Arab countries and might be translated as: "We've told you what you need to do; if you choose to ignore it that's your problem, not ours."
   


Protests in Suez yesterday

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 Jan 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 27 Jan (evening): The Arabist blog contrasts yesterday's headlines in the Egyptian press with today's headlines and concludes: "The policy for the state press has changed from ignoring the situation to scaremongering about chaos."


Egypt update, January 25

Kifaya – "Enough!" One man and the riot police in Cairo today

  
Well, who would have believed it? Today's protests in Egypt far exceeded my own expectations and, no doubt, the expectations of the organisers and the Egyptian authorities. The Mubarak regime, even if it's not headed for oblivion just yet, must surely be shaken to the core.

For blow-by-blow accounts of the events as they unfolded, see AhramOnline, Enduring America and the Guardian.

I wrote this morning that today would be the first real test of the "Tunisia effect" – and we can now safely assume that it does exist. Without Tunisia, the protests in Egypt would have had nothing like the support they got. Today, someone coined the word "Tunisami" (Tunis + tsunami) and there were chants of "Ya Mubarak, Ya Mubarak, al-Saudia fi intizaarak" – Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia (the retirement home for ex-dictators) is waiting for you.

I also suggested this morning that today would be a test of the "new" Arab politics (largely informal and organised online) against the old, institutional, opposition politics. Case proven. The new politics has shown itself to be viable.

Maybe I should add, too, that it was a test of the new media versus the old media. Again, case proven. The old media – even al-Jazeera – looked slow on their feet and too preoccupied with the less important game of musical chairs in Lebanon.

As for the new media, this morning, Wael Abbas, the most famous Egyptian blogger, was out and about in Cairo, with a live webcam mounted in a car. The independent newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, was also streaming live video from the streets. Twitter (hashtag #jan25) went into overdrive. Citizen journalists were everywhere – someone counted seven of them recording the scene on their mobile phones at just one location during a single 21-second film clip.

Late this afternoon there were signs that some kind of internet crackdown had begun, with reports that Twitter had been blocked. At present, though, it's not entirely clear what is going in that area.

The protests themselves started off peacefully, though the tear gas, plastic bullets (and possibly live bullets too) came later. The security forces were out in strength and thought they had planned well. But in Cairo they were wrong-footed by the protesters who had announced their own plans but then changed them at the last minute. By staging multiple demonstrations in different places they also seem to have kept the security forces on the hop.

In fact, for much of the day the security forces don't seem to have behaved with quite the gusto that Mubarak might have expected of them. There were reports of demonstrators being allowed through police lines in some cases, and of demonstrators fraternising with the police. One woman was photographed giving them roses.
At present, no one can say with any certainty where all this will lead. But I suspect today's events will leave the protesters feeling emboldened rather than intimidated. 

Man against a water cannon

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 Jan 2011 (evening). Comment.


Police Day protests in Egypt

Today is national Police Day in Egypt. It marks the occasion, 59 years ago, when police in Ismailia refused to surrender to British forces and 41 of them died in a three-hour battle. Their act of heroism is officially commemorated every year on January 25.

But since 1952 perceptions of the Egyptian police have changed – from liberators to oppressors, as a headline in al-Masry al-Youm puts it – and this year's Police Day is turning into a day of protest or, as some are calling it, a day of "revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment". Writing in the Guardian, Jack Shenker describes the preparations.

For Egypt, this will be the first major test of the "Tunisia effect". The protests are being organised by the Kifaya ("Enough") movement and the 6 April Youth Movement. More than 80,000 people have declared their support through Facebook, and support is also expected from industrial workers.

Some of the opposition parties have said they won't be taking part, as has Mohamed Elbaradei, the reform campaigner. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has declined to give its formal backing. In that sense, it looks like becoming at least partly a contest between the old, institutional, opposition politics and the more informal "new politics" organised online.

"Regardless of how many people turn up, these protests will be highly significant," Nabil Abdel Fattah, of Al-Ahram Research Centre, told the Guardian. "Those confronting the regime on Tuesday will be the sons and daughters of virtual activism – a new generation that has finally found something around which they can unite and rally.They are the product of a government that has never offered them any ideological vision to believe in, and now they have themselves become a symbol of contemporary Egypt."

The government has already been organising counter-demonstrations in support of the police and the detested interior minister, Habib el-Adli has threatened to "arrest any persons expressing their views illegally".

"Youth street action has no impact and security is capable of deterring any acts outside the law," he said in remarks quoted by Reuters.

Three people were reportedly arrested yesterday for distributing flyers advertising the protests.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 Jan 2011. Comment.


The new face of Arabic


  
Not much to say about this – except that I rather like it. It's a new font from the Monotype company, looking sleek and modern, and known as Neo Sans Arabic.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 Jan 2011. Comment.


Tunisia and Facebook

In an article for The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal, formerly of Wired magazine, takes a detailed look at the recent battle between the Tunisian authorities and Facebook – and how Facebook responded to it. He writes:

After more than ten days of intensive investigation and study, Facebook's security team realized something very, very bad was going on. The country's Internet service providers were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users' login information when they went to sites like Facebook.

By January 5, it was clear that an entire country's worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades. Sullivan and his team decided they needed a country-level solution -- and fast.

Though Sullivan [Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer] said Facebook has encountered a wide variety of security problems and been involved in various political situations, they'd never seen anything like what was happening in Tunisia.

The article continue that Facebook treated this as a technical/security problem rather than a political problem.

The software [used by the Tunisian regime] was basically a country-level keystroke logger, with the passwords presumably being fed from the ISPs to the Ben Ali regime. As a user, you just logged into some part of the cloud, Facebook or your email, say, and it snatched up that information. If you stayed persistently logged in, you were safe. It was those who logged out and came back that were open to the attack.

Sullivan's team rapidly coded a two-step response to the problem. First, all Tunisian requests for Facebook were routed to an https server. The Https protocol encrypts the information you send across it, so it's not susceptible to the keylogging strategy employed by the Tunisian ISPs.

The second technical solution they implemented was a "roadblock" for anyone who had logged out and then back in during the time when the malicious code was running. Like Facebook's version of a "mother's maiden name" question to get access to your old password, it asks you to identify your friends in photos to complete an account login.

They rolled out the new solutions to 100% of Tunisia by Monday morning, five days after they'd realized what was happening. It wasn't a totally perfect solution. Most specifically, ISPs can force a downgrade of https to http, but Sullivan said that Facebook had not seen that happen.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 Jan 2011. Comment.


Arab dictators are good for Israel

Having ignored the Tunisian uprising initially, the American right is now struggling to come to terms with it. Very inconveniently, it's hard to fit into standard neocon/clash-of-civilisations narratives – though that doesn't stop Robert Kaplan, writing in the New York Times, from having a try. He starts by denying its wider significance.

I have argued previously in this blog that the overthrow of Ben Ali will have a powerful inspirational effect on Arabs generally and will prove deeply unsettling for Arab regimes, though we should not expect an immediate domino effect because circumstances differ from country to country.

Kaplan, however, goes much further in differentiating Tunisia from other Arab countries. Its historical experience, he claims, is "unique" in "pivotal ways", and he comes up with the stunning suggestion that it is not really Arab: "Even today, many of the roads in the country, particularly in the north, were originally Roman ones," he says.

After the Roman general Scipio defeated Hannibal in 202 BC outside modern-day Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch, or fossa regia, that marked the extent of civilised territory ... The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the recent revolt started when a vendor of fruit and vegetables set himself on fire, lies just beyond Scipio’s line. 

That leads to the main point of Kaplan's brief run-through of Carthaginian/Roman history, which is this:

Tunisia is less part of the connective tissue of Arab North Africa than a demographic and cultural island bordered by sea and desert, with upwardly mobile European aspirations.

Perhaps fearing that readers may not be totally convinced by his "not-really-Arabs" line, he then falls back on the more familiar argument that there is still time for the Tunisian revolution to go horribly wrong. In which case, presumably, it could deter democratic activism elsewhere rather than encouraging it:

There are plenty of reasons to think we are not on the cusp of a democratic avalanche. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 began as a revolt against the tyranny of the shah, but ended with a theocratic regime that was even worse. The seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca the same year by Islamic radicals might have brought a tyranny far worse than that of monarchial Saudi Arabia. In any event, it was put down and so remained a localised revolt. The Cedar Revolution in 2005 in Lebanon was stillborn.

Finally, Kaplan says, "in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy" (though the interests he mentions are primarily those of Israel rather than the US):

It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader – just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.

And here was I, thinking that freedom is a fundamental right. But apparently not if it gets in the way of American and Israeli interests.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 Jan 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 24 January: For a more detailed critique of Kaplan's article, see The Moor Next Door.


More protests in Yemen and Algeria

There were more anti-government protests in Algeria and Yemen yesterday.

In Yemen, about 2,500 students and opposition activists demonstrated at Sana'a University, calling for President Salih to go. Although recent demonstrations have increasingly focused on Salih's presidency, this seems to have been the first one aimed primarily at ending his 32-year rule. References to Tunisia were seen in some of the placards.

Police used tear gas and about 30 demonstrators were arrested, according to the Associated Press.

CNN says 1,500 members of the security forces were on hand and there was also a smaller counter-demonstration, presumably organised by the ruling party, calling for Salih to stay.

The website AlmasdarOnline has a series of pictures apparently taken during yesterday's protests. Separately, the website also reports that Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist and chair of the Yemeni organisation, Women Journalists Without Chains, was abducted last week by men in military uniform. The authorities have not confirmed her arrest but it is thought she is being held in the central prison. Ms Tawakkol was also briefly detained for questioning last October.

In Algiers, riot police clashed violently with demonstrators who were trying to hold a march in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. They prevented the marchers from leaving the headquarters of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy party. AP reports:

Riot police, backed by a helicopter and crowd-control trucks, ringed the exit to ensure marchers couldn't leave the building — and striking those who tried to come out to take part. Outside, some young men waved the national flag and chanted "Assassin Power!"

"I am a prisoner in the party's headquarters," said Said Sadi, a former presidential candidate who leads the Rally for Culture and Democracy party (RCD), said through a megaphone from a balcony window.

Demonstrators shouted "Boutef out!" referring to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Mohamed Khendek, one of the party's 19 members of parliament, is quoted as saying: "They indeed stopped us from marching, but politically, we have succeeded in breaking the wall of fear."

The RCD is a secular party with strong Berber connections.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 Jan 2011. Comment.


Protests in Jordan

The "Tunisia effect" continues. Several thousand protesters took to the streets of Jordan yesterday, for the second Friday in succession. More than 5,000 marched in the centre of Amman, with smaller demonstrations in several other cities, according to agency reports. The protesters are said to have ranged across the spectrum, from leftists and trade unionists to Islamists.

As in the earlier stages of the Tunisian uprising, the mobilising factor is economic hardship, though there are also calls for the prime minister and government to resign.

Yesterday's Jordan Times reported that the government is to "reset" its spending priorities to address rising living costs, with pay rises for government employees and increased susbsidies on some goods. However, this can really be no more than a temporary palliative and the protesters seem to recognise that.

Trade unionist Maisarah Malas told AFP: "These measures are designed to drug people, nothing more. We need comprehensive reforms."

A retired serviceman, Farouq Abbadi, is also quoted as saying: "The government should change its economic policies and mentality. We are protesting today because we want to protect ourselves and our nation. We have gone 50 years backwards."

Writing in the Jadaliyya blog, Ziad Abu-Rish discusses Jordan's economic problems in detail and suggests some drastic re-thinking is needed:

A genuine reconsideration of the economic development model underway in Jordan would require the regime, the government, and commentators to move away from self-congratulatory celebrations of issues such as Jordan's rankings in The Heritage Foundation's 2010 Economic Freedom Report. Indices such as "Business Freedom", "Financial Freedom", and "Trade Freedom" ultimately measure the ability of capital to move in and out of the borders of Jordan and to circulate amongst its economic elites. It makes no difference to the average citizen that Jordan's economy is ranked the 38th freest in the world and fourth freest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Such rankings, and their celebration, render invisible the daily experiences of the average Jordanian. Alternatively, it would do us all some good to consider that Jordan ranks in the bottom 30% in terms of both poverty and unemployment vis-ΰ-vis global rankings – meaning that 70% of the countries in the world have lower rates of poverty and unemployment than Jordan does.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 Jan 2011. Comment.


Yemeni protesters target Salih

The Tunisia effect continues with a Reuters headline, "Protests erupt in Yemen", reporting that thousands took to the streets in the central city of Ta'izz yesterday.

This followed two nights of rioting by secessionist supporters in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, students and opposition activists have also held five protests in the capital, Sana'a, meeting a heavy-handed response from security forces.

Unlike Tunisia, though, such disturbances are nothing unusual in Yemen – probably no more than about four on the Richter scale in terms of the threat they pose to the regime.

"Of course it's hard to know what will happen in the coming days," Yemeni analyst Abdulrahman Salam told Reuters, "but the situation here is different because allegiances here lie first with tribes, clans or even families." These divisions, along with calls for secession in the south, make it very difficult to build a united front against President Salih, who has been in power in Sana'a since 1978.

Nevertheless, the opposition discourse seems to be focusing increasingly on Salih's presidency. The student protesters at Sana'a University, for example, held up signs saying: "Leave before you are forced to leave".

To some extent, Salih has brought this upon himself by proposing constitutional changes which would end the presidential two-term limit. 

"We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don't lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children," Mohammed al-Sabry, head of the opposition coalition said in remarks quoted by Reuters. "We won't permit these corrupt leaders to stay in power and we are ready to sleep in the streets for our country's sake, in order to liberate it from the hands of the corrupt."

Without a constitutional amendment, Salih will be legally required to step down in 2013 – something which he is obviously trying to avoid. Before the events in Tunisia, it seemed likely that he would succeed in clinging on but now the balance of probability may be shifting in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Observer reports more Gaddafi-like antics from the self-appointed "southern leader", Tariq al-Fadhli (of Fadli). In the courtyard of his home in Zinjibar on Wednesday, the aristocratic ex-jihadhist burned an American flag, a Yemeni flag, a flag of the former South Yemen and a green separatist flag, together with pictures of President Salih and three of the south's former Marxist leaders. He clearly has a lot to protest about.

In what the Yemen Observer describes as a strongly-worded speech, Fadli said: "To America and to the unjust, and to the dinosaurs: al-Majalah was destroyed with a cruise missile worth 600,000 US dollars. If this money was spent to develop the area, we would have had a wonderful town where not even a terrorist housefly would dare to enter." (In Fadli-speak, "the unjust" is code for Salih and "dinosaurs" is code for the Marxists.)

Wednesday's flag-burning was in odd contrast to another ceremony in Fadli's courtyard last February, when he hoisted an American flag and saluted it while a recording of The Star-Spangled Banner was played.

Note: The Reuters report quoted above describes Ta'izz as a "southern city". Though it lies south of Sana'a, it was not part of the southern state that merged with the north in 1990.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 Jan 2011. Comment.


Welcome to post-Islamism

Writing for Comment Is Free yesterday, I suggested that events in Tunisia could herald the rise of a new post-Islamist politics in the Middle East – a politics where religious movements are not automatically seen as the main threat to hidebound Arab regimes.

Tom Pfeiffer, a Reuters correspondent in Cairo makes a similar point when he writes:

"The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia's pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power."

Not only that. It punches a hole in the standard necon/clash-of-civilisations narrative too. Pfeiffer continues that it also "looks embarrassing for the western governments that spent decades justifying their support for Ben Ali – and other secular-minded Arab world strongmen – by suggesting the alternative was Iran-style Islamic revolution".

The article quotes Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa specialist in Paris, as saying: "The lesson from what's happening in Tunisia is that [Arab leaders] won't be able to hide any more behind the Islamist threat argument." 

Meanwhile, Egyptian political analyst Nabil Abdel Fatah says Islamists were "not able to carry the concerns and longings of the vast majority of Tunisian people, especially the middle class which has chosen freedom and justice".

One of the first effects of this is that economics – and especially youth unemployment – has suddenly shot to the top of the Arab regimes' agenda. According to a recent report from the International Labour Organisation, 50 million jobs need to be created over the next 10 years across the region to "stabilise employment".

"The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession," Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League told the league's economic summit meeting in Egypt yesterday. "The Tunisian revolution is not far from us," he warned. "The Arab citizen [has] entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration."

The richer Arab countries are now dipping into their pockets to create a special fund to "provide job opportunities for young Arab people in order to empower them to participate fully in their societies." Al-Jazeera has more details.

At $2 billion, the proposed fund is not particularly large and throwing money at the problem is never going to be much of a solution. It won't work unless there is also sweeping political change. Empowering young (and older) people "to participate fully in their societies" has to become more than rhetoric.

Much as Arab leaders may try, economic progress can't be separated from political change, because many of the barriers to (non-oil) development and job creation – as we have seen in Tunisia – come from the regimes themselves.

First, there is the paternalistic idea that the regimes always know best. They don't welcome input from the rest of society, and they bristle if people try. They will have to become a lot more transparent and start taking people into their confidence.

Secondly, there is the patrimonial system where regime insiders "own" the economy (or the most lucrative parts of it) and use their political connections to drive out newcomers or demand a cut from from – which is no way to encourage investment.

Thirdly, we have the archaic attitudes to freedom of information in many countries (internet censorship and the like) which limit the possibilities for development in the IT sector.

Finally, if and when new jobs are created, there's still the question of who gets them. This is where people with qualifications have to wrestle with the old problems of wasta and nepotism. In Tunisia, that seems to have been almost as big a grievance as the lack of jobs itself.

The customary Arab solution, of course, is simply to take people on to the government payroll and not bother too much about whether they turn up at the office or do any work. But in these straitened times, even that option is looking less and less viable.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 Jan 2011. Comment.


Gaddafi versus Kleenex

Almanara, the Libyan opposition website whose disappearance I reported yesterday, is now back on line and saying that it was attacked by Gaddafi's security people. Al-Jazeera has a story about it (in Arabic).

Besides declaring his support for the ousted Tunisian president, Gaddafi has also been ranting against the internet and WikiLeaks, which he apparently blames for Ben Ali's downfall. I am indebted to Global Voices for this translation of a passage from the Leader's weekend speech. In case you're wondering, "Kleenex" is the name he has given to WikiLeaks:

Even you, my Tunisian brothers. You may be reading this Kleenex and empty talk on the Internet.

This Internet, which any demented person, any drunk can get drunk and write in, do you believe it? The Internet is like a vacuum cleaner, it can suck anything. Any useless person; any liar; any drunkard; anyone under the influence; anyone high on drugs; can talk on the Internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of "Facebook" and "Kleenex" and "YouTube"! Shall we become victims to tools they created so that they can laugh at our moods?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Jan 2011. Comment.


Tunisia: the need for vigilance

Having got rid of Ben Ali and his family, the question now for Tunisians is how to dismantle the system of control that he established over the last 23 years – and it's looking far from easy. Without continuous pressure from the public, the Ben Ali loyalists are likely to retrench and continue running the country much as before – minus Ben Ali of course, and perhaps in a slightly less repressive way.

The "new" government announced yesterday is not a good start. Give or take a few opposition figures, it looks suspiciously like the old one: same prime minister, same people in all the key positions. And all the opposition parties included in it are those that Ben Ali approved of – with none of the parties that he banned.

This can be excused, to some extent, on the grounds of maintaining legitimacy: that constitutional procedures have to be followed and that the outlawed parties are – well – still technically illegal. It has be remembered, though, that the legitimacy – such as it is – comes from a constitution that was never designed to be genuinely democratic and is derived from a regime that many would not regard as legitimate in any case.

The crucial issue is whether this new government is one to set the country on a path to transition of whether it will merely try to consolidate whatever can be salvaged from the old regime.

Either way, the new government may only last a couple of months. Under the constitution, a presidential election must be held within 60 days of Ben Ali's departure (no later than March 12 by my reckoning). The new president is then empowered to form a new government and dissolve the existing parliament.

Sixty days is a very short time to organise a presidential campaign from scratch and this probably gives Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, with its structure still largely intact, a considerable advantage – regardless of any other attempts to manipulate the result.

Another question here concerns the presidential candidates. As Ibn Kafka points out in his blog, in order to contest the election they need 30 signatures from members of parliament or presidents of city councils.

It's not clear at present how much of an obstacle that might become, but the RCD currently holds 161 of the 214 parliamentary seats. In order to muster 30 parliamentary signatures without RCD support, candidates will need backing from at least three of the smaller opposition parties. However, if the RCD wants to avoid generating more hostility among the public it would be well-advised not to use this power to block any serious opposition candidates.

I have been trying to find out how the voting is supposed to work in Tunisian presidential elections but so far I don't have an answer. If there are more than two candidates, does the winner need more than 50% of the votes, or is it a first-past-the-post system? The question was irrelevant before, because Ben Ali always won with majorities that were never less than 89%, but it's relevant now.
If it's a first-past-the-post system, there's a risk of splitting the opposition vote among multiple candidates and letting the RCD candidate slip through by default.

A new president is empowered by the constitution (article 57) to dissolve parliament and hold elections within 30 days. However, he (or she??) is not obliged to do so and in theory the existing parliament could remain in place until its term ends in October 2014.

I'm not suggesting this is necessarily what will happen but it's worth keeping in mind that without extreme vigilance on the part of the Tunisian public, the country might find itself, a few months from now, with another RCD president and a parliament still dominated by Ben Ali's party. Tunisians are going to have to remain very watchful, and keep up the pressure for change.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Jan 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 19 January: Regarding presidential elections, a reader who asked not to be identified informs me: 

"If there is more than one candidate, the winner has to get at least 50 per cent of the votes cast. If no candidate gets 50 per cent, the campaign is re- run one week after the results of the first round are announced, and the campaign for the second round lasts one week (for the first round, it's two weeks). Voting for the second round begins two days after the end of campaigning."


Libya and the vanishing videos

Yesterday, I noted that a Libyan opposition website, Almanara, had posted videos showing disturbances in Libya during the last few days. After that, something odd happened: the website disappeared. Trying to access Almanara this morning, I simply got an error message.

Conceivably this could be just a technical glitch, but I suspect not. A YouTube video of the protests, which I linked to at the same time, has also disappeared and there are claims on Twitter that access to social networking websites inside Libya is being blocked. Another Libyan website, Libya Almostakbal, reports that it has been attacked twice since Friday.

Several copies of the videos, which I didn't link to yesterday, are still available on the internet. I won't provide links to them all, but here is one of them – just to see what happens to it.

The protests themselves have not been reported in the official Libyan media, apart from a statement from the Revolutionary Committee condemning them.

Meanwhile, the cause of the trouble is becoming clearer. It's about delays in providing subsidised housing, and since Thursday activists in several towns have taken over hundreds of empty properties.

For example, the Egyptian website, AhramOnline, reports that on Saturday night "hundreds of people broke into vacant houses and took over about 800 vacant units in Bani Walid city (180 kilometres south east from the capital, Tripoli)".

A further problem is that at least some of the empty apartments taken over by the activists have already been allocated to people who had signed contracts and paid money but now find others occupying the homes they were expecting.

There are also hints of corruption in the allocation of housing. Referring to the situation in Bani Walid, a statement from the National Front for Salvation of Libya (an opposition movement) quoted by AhramOnline said: "Bani Walid has no basic services; thousands of people are without houses and the local authority is corrupted, it only delivers services with bribes. Nothing will make Bani Walid calm but freedom, justice and transparency."

So far, the Gaddafi regime – for all its eccentricity – has handled the protests more smartly than the Ben Ali regime did in Tunisia. Large numbers of police have been standing by, watching, but they are said to have instructions not to open fire. The Libyan regime has also made conciliatory noises towards the protesters. The Revolutionary Committee's statement said: "We have formed a committee to investigate every complaint, all the problems will be solved soon through the legitimate authorities." 

Contrast that with the Tunisian regime which, a week after the initial trouble in Sidi Bouzid, was still largely in denial and trying to justify the authorities' action in stopping Mohamed Bouazizi from selling his fruit.

So, Gaddafi may succeed in quietening things down with promises, committee meetings and the sacking of a few officials. It's unlikely, though, that the more systemic problems will be addressed in any meaningful way – with the result that the protests, if they die down now, are bound to return at some point in the future.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 Jan 2011. Comment.


Fate of a Tunisian tiger

Just in case you are wondering about the pet tiger belonging to Ben Ali's 30-year-old son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr el Materi – it has been killed. There's an unpleasant video here if you want to see. Materi himself fled Tunisia last week, reportedly to Paris.

Rumours of the tiger's existence were confirmed in 2009 by US ambassador Robert Codec during a lavish dinner at Materi's home, later reported in a WikiLeaks document. Ambassador Codec learned that its name was Pasha and that it consumed four chickens per day.

A comment in the WikiLeaks document says: "The situation reminded the ambassador of Uday Hussein's lion cage in Baghdad." Indeed.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 Jan 2011. Comment.


Trouble in Libya

Just two days after the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, videos are circulating of disturbances in neighbouring Libya. Needless to say, this is causing a good deal of excitement on Twitter.

Colonel Gaddafi has been in power for almost 42 years, compared with a mere 23 for Ben Ali. In his second-to-last speech as president, Ben Ali referred to Gaddafi as "my dear brother" and thanked him for support. In a speech reported by the official Libyan news agency on Saturday, Gaddafi reciprocated:

"I am very pained by what is happening in Tunisia ... Tunisia now lives in fear ... What is this for? To change Zine al-Abidine? Hasn't he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years ..."

Almanara, a Libyan opposition website which appears to have Islamist leanings, has posted three videos of protesters in the city of al-Bayda. There are also a few more on YouTube and al-Jazeera has a report in Arabic.

The facts are still rather unclear, but Almanara says the demonstrators clashed with security forces, threw stones at a government building and set fire to one of its offices. The protesters were demanding "decent housing and dignified life", according to the website. Provision of housing appears to be the main issue and there are reports of people taking over apartments and squatting in them.

Will it develop into anything bigger? A month ago, I would have said the likelihood of that was zero. Post-Tunisia, though, it's difficult to be quite so sure..

We can expect to see many more incidents like this over the coming months in various Arab countries. Inspired by the Tunisian uprising, people are going to be more assertive about their grievances and start probing, to see how far they can push the authorities. In the light of Tunisia we can also expect a tendency, each time disturbances happen, to suggest (or hope) that they are the start of some new Arab revolution. The reality, though, is that almost all of them will quickly fizzle out or get crushed. But one day – who knows when? – another of them will grow wings and bring down a regime.

Contrary to what many people imagine, protests and even large-scale riots are not uncommon in the Arab countries. They occur mostly in marginalised regions or among marginalised sections of the population and, normally, they pose no great threat to the regime.

Last month – one day before the trouble started in Tunisia – there was a Sunni-versus-Shia riot in the Saudi city of Medina. Eight hundred people are said to have taken part; windows were smashed and dozens of cars damaged or destroyed. Outside the kingdom, hardly anyone noticed.

Earlier this month, Maan in Jordan witnessed several days of 
disturbances which were attributed to a labour dispute and/or inter-tribal violence.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the regime faces almost permanent armed rebellion from one quarter or another – though it somehow survives.

The tricky part is judging the significance of such protests when they occur. One test is whether they are outside the norm for the country concerned: ten dead in a tribal battle with the Yemeni army would be no big deal, but the same thing in Oman, next door, would be hugely significant.

Applying the "Tunisia test", the following are also useful pointers for distinguishing minor from major protests:

1. Disturbances sustained for more than a few days.

2. Disturbances steadily growing in strength and spreading to other areas, especially those areas not traditionally regarded as marginalised.

3. Focus of protests shifting strongly from the original grievances to a more generalised critique of the regime.

4. Regime starting to show signs of inability to reassert control.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 Jan 2011. Comment.


Ben Ali is no longer president

An update to my post earlier today. Tunisia's constitutional council 
has now decided that the chairman of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, should be acting president – and not prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi.

The council says that Article 57 of the constitution, rather than Article 56, should apply. In other words, Ben Ali is deemed to have given up the presidency permanently rather than temporarily.

It also means that presidential elections must be held within 60 days. This is much better news.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 Jan 2011. Comment.


Ben Ali is still president

IMPORTANT: See update above

After fleeing Tunisia yesterday, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali made a circuitous journey around the Mediterranean. His plane first headed south to Libya, then north towards Paris where he was apparently told he would not be welcome. After a reported refuelling stop in Italy, the plane eventually landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Ben Ali is now a guest of the Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines, His Majesty King Abdullah. 

Whether the king will offer him a long-term home there remains to be seen, though it's perhaps worth recalling that Saudi Arabia gave permanent refuge to the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, after he was deposed in 1979.

A statement from the official Saudi Press Agency said: "We have welcomed in the Saudi kingdom the arrival of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family."

Note the reference here to Ben Ali as "president". Legally speaking, this is correct, because there has been no announcement of his resignation. He has fled the country but he is still, technically, head of state.

This has an important bearing on what may happen next inside Tunisia. For the sake of legitimacy during the transition, it's desirable to follow the letter of the constitution – which is what Ben Ali did when he seized power in 1987. Very shortly after being appointed as prime minister, he had President Bourguiba declared medically unfit for office and became acting president himself, as specified in the constitution.

There are two different provisions in the Tunisian constitution: one to cover the president's "temporary disability" (Article 56), and the other for a vacancy caused by the president's "death, resignation or total incapacity" (Article 57).

Ben Ali's departure is being treated as a case of "temporary disability" – which is probably why prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has been cagey about saying whether or not he will return. In these circumstances, Ghannouchi legally assumes the duties of president, but with two important caveats: he cannot dissolve parliament and the existing government must remain in place until the end of the president's "disability".

Interestingly, Ben Ali dismissed the entire government (with the apparent exception of Ghannouchi) before leaving – so the rule about the government remaining in place doesn't strictly apply. This has opened the way for Ghannouchi – if he so chooses – to form a government of national unity that includes opposition politicians.

If Ben Ali had opted for the alternative course – immediate resignation – the chairman of parliament, not Ghannouchi, would have become acting president. However, that course also requires the holding of new presidential elections within 45-60 days (something even the opposition would probably not want, since it allows them little time to organise, especially during the present chaos). 

Ghannouchi, 69, is not a popular figure. He has been prime minister since 1999 and is regarded as one of Ben Ali's long-term henchmen. Not surprisingly, there is talk among the Tunisian protesters of trying to oust him too. If they succeed, the constitutional position will become very murky indeed.

There doesn't seem to be an ideal solution but, if constitutionality is to be observed, a broadly-based and short-lived transitional government under Ghannnouchi (regrettably) may be the least bad option – assuming that Ben Ali can be persuaded to resign shortly, triggering a presidential election in, say, April or May. That would allow Tunisians to choose a new leader without letting Ghannouchi become too entrenched. When – and if – Ben Ali announces his resignation, Ghannouchi must cease to be acting president (at least, according to the constitution)..

On the other hand, there's a nightmare scenario where Ben Ali could refuse to resign and sit out the rest of his term in Saudi Arabia until October 2014. That would give Ghannouchi almost four years to consolidate his position – and it may be what Ben Ali has in mind.

Having Ben Ali as a guest also gives King Abdullah an opportunity to manipulate Tunisian politics behind the scenes. He could, for instance, insist on Ben Ali resigning as a condition for staying in the kingdom or, alternatively, he could continue to protect and honour him as a "president-in-exile".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 Jan 2011. Comment.


Tunisia: a moment in history

In due course, every city of consequence in Tunisia will have a street or square named after Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed fruit-seller whose humiliation at the hands of the authorities led to a revolution. It's sad that he didn't live to see it but today's events are a fitting tribute.

It is still unclear what the future may hold for Tunisia but we can be sure that whoever takes over will have to listen far more to the voice of the people or risk the same fate as Ben Ali.

On January 7 – only a week ago, but it seems such a long time now – I discussed what impact a Tunisian revolution might have on the wider Arab world. 

Regardless of what happens next in terms of a Tunisian government, the inescapable fact is that a popular uprising has removed an Arab head of state – a truly historic event. Ben Ali has fled and he is not going to return, despite what anyone may say about whether he has formally resigned or not.

That alone is going to have a huge psychological impact throughout the region. As several people have pointed out on Twitter, while Obama says "Yes, we can", the Tunisians have said "Yes, we do."

Looking around the other Arab regimes, I can't see any of them (with the possible exception of Algeria) at risk of being toppled in the quite same way – at least, not in the immediate future. There are so many differences in the circumstances.

But – and it's a very important "but" – we can expect Arab publics to become increasingly assertive while the regimes become increasingly nervous. For the regimes, though, in the long run it's a lose-lose situation. Either they can seek to tighten their control, thus fuelling popular disaffection, or they can relax their control – which the public will duly interpret as a sign of weakness and seek to exploit. One way or another, they are going to sink deeper into the mire.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 Jan 2011. Comment.


Tunisia: double or quits

A Tunisian officer salutes the funeral of one of the protests' victims. Bizerte, Thursday. Source: nawaat.
  

In his speech to Tunisians last night, President Ben Ali went for double or quits. Either he has done enough to quell the protests with his offers to stand down in three years, to allow more freedom of expression (with qualifications) and to stop shooting demonstrators (again, with qualifications) or the game is lost. If it fails, he has only one card left: resignation.

Last night, drivers in Tunis could be heard hooting their horns in apparent approval of the president – though there were claims on Twitter that this was not spontaneous but orchestrated by the regime. On the plus side, internet censorship appeared to have been lifted, largely if not totally. On the minus side, there were reports of further shooting, even after the president had ordered it to stop.

This morning, the UGTT (the main trade union) is due to hold a general strike and demonstration in Tunis. It is expected that the ruling party will organise a counter-demonstration and the result could easily be a massive punch-up.

A BBC report says the "opposition" has (cautiously) welcomed the president's promises but opposition politicians are not the same as the protesters on the streets who may well have other ideas. Pledges, even when they are made on television, don't count for much in the Arab countries and ordinary folk treat them very cynically.

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Ben Ali survives this weekend and buys some more time. What then?

First, Tunisia will not revert to what it was. People will be far more outspoken, less inhibited than they were before. The mainstream media may not change much (after all, some of them are owned by Ben Ali's family) but politics will have to open up.

That, in turn, means more danger for Ben Ali. He will obviously try to use the time he has bought to prepare the way for a successor of his own choosing, but it won't be plain sailing. He has made economic promises that he can't deliver and that could blow the whole thing off course.

Meanwhile, there is other unfinished business: calls for inquiries into the shootings, for example, and the promised investigation into corruption. Corruption is a major flashpoint, because there is no way it can be tackled credibly without arresting most of Ben Ali's family.

If he does survive the current uprising his future still looks pretty bleak. At best, he will be what we in the west call a lame duck leader – not at all what the situation demands.

At present, though, all that is still hypothetical. Which way it is going to go will be decided on the streets over the next few days. The ball is back in the protesters' court.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 Jan 2011. Comment.


Tunisia: the last days of Ben Ali

Today is exactly four weeks since the start of the Tunisian uprising and I was planning to write another summary of the day's main events. But, honestly, I can't. There's so much going on, so much chaos.

Let me just point to two things which, basically, say it all.

One was the demonstration today in Kairouan. I've been there on holiday and it's not an especially big town. But look at the video: that protest is huge, huge, huge. 

The other is this report from the New York Times: "Tunisia Rioters Overwhelm Police Near Capital". Referring to today's events in Hammamet, it says:

The police on Thursday all but abandoned this exclusive Mediterranean beach town — haven to the capital’s rich and powerful — as rioters calling for the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president swarmed the streets, torched bank offices and ransacked a mansion belonging to one of his relatives.

That is not the only place where the security forces are fighting a losing battle. 

Regional commanders are no doubt bracing themselves to deliver the bad news to President Ben Ali if they haven't already done so: they can no longer cope and the only way to restore order now is through a political solution.

Ben Ali is speaking as I write this. In any normal country it would have been his resignation speech. Instead, he has  promised to stand down in 2014, but the thought in many Tunisians' minds must surely be: why wait till then?

In the meantime, he seems to be offering a bit more freedom and promising to stop shooting demonstrators. But even that seems too late now and, anyway, after 23 years of repression who is going to take him at his word? The Muslim weekend is upon us and, I suspect, many Tunisians will judge that this is the moment to finish him off.

Unless the president has some totally unexpected tricks up his sleeve (which I doubt), he'll be gone well before 2014. If the protests continue on the same scale this weekend, I'd give him about three days. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 Jan 2011. Comment.


'Treason' claim over Clinton visit

Hillary Clinton paid a surprise five-hour visit to Yemen on Tuesday en route from the Emirates – the first vist by a US secretary of state for more than 20 years.

A good deal of the media interest focused on her fall as she boarded the plane to leave but since her departure the visit has been causing ructions in Yemen.

Besides having lunch with President Salih, she met opposition and civil society representatives privately at the US embassy – and the regime is furious.

Aref al-Zuka, a senior figure in the ruling party has denounced the opposition leaders who met Clinton as "traitors and agents of foreign states", and has demanded that they be prosecuted for treason.

The authorities have also concocted a new rule, disguised as an anti-terrorism measure: "it is strictly prohibited [for] any person to enter any embassy or headquarters of the foreign mission" except "by prior coordination with the relevant security agencies".

In a statement after meeting Salih, Clinton stressed: "Above all, the United States is committed to the people of Yemen ... We want this to be a relationship not just between leaders and governments, but between the people of Yemen and the people of the United States of America."

The Yemen Post reports:

Hasan Zaid, the general secretary for the opposition al-Haqq Party said that from the discussions JMP [united opposition] leaders had with Mrs Clinton, he came to understand that Washington wants change and supports it.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Joint Meeting Parties leaders in a closed door meeting which continued more than two hours.

According to Zaid, opposition was given great importance by the visiting American delegation, and this will help the reform strategy in the country.

"Without national agreements on key points, there will be no solution to the country's problems, and Clinton understood that."

"We are confident to say that the JMP will not enter elections until the ruling party agrees to the terms we agreed on previously. It seems to me that pressure was put on the government to change some of its stances, and will most likely return to the dialogue table, and this time with the Americans observing."

"Mrs. Clinton showed strong support for the opposition and clearly mentioned the need for change."

"The US support for political reforms is respected by the opposition, and we feel that this is a positive step the US government. International pressure needs to be put on the Yemeni government and Clintons visit is a step in the right direction."

According to News Yemen, those who met Mrs Clinton included: 
Mohammed Abdul-Malik al-Mutawakkil (Joint Meeting Parties), Abdul Wahab Medial (Islah), Sultan Alatawani (Nasserist), Hassan Zaid (al-Haqq), Mohammed Salem Basendwah (Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue), Ahmed Haidara (Baath Party) and Abu Bakr Baveb (Socialist Party).

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 Jan 2011. Comment.


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Last revised on 12 February, 2011