Libya’s decentralized rebellion: will it produce a weak state?

I have a short blurb up on, along with four other Libya commentators, on the challenges facing the new interim government. Others mentioned the political transition, disarmament, and changing the Qaddafi-era habit of reliance on connections and corruption. I mentioned the need for the central government to assert its control over all the locally-based militias.

I think, in retrospect, that the autonomy of Libya’s rebel militias were a major reason for the country’s fairly smooth transition from Qaddafi control to rebel control. Usually, every attack on a Qaddafi-held town was spearheaded by a group of exiled fighters from that town, while simultaneously rebel sympathizers staged an uprising from inside that town. Regime forces, softened up by Nato airstrikes, often tended to collapse very quickly, fleeing to safer circumstances. Without these fifth columns to assist and to sew panic among Qaddafi loyalists, the rebels had considerably more difficulty — as we’re seeing now in Sirte and Beni Walid.

Politically, this gave each region a strong sense of having engineered its own liberation, and prevented the perception of a takeover by outsdiders. Just as importantly, it tended to prevent looting — the first thing that the insurgents, after grabbing a weapon from abandoned Qaddafi outposts, was to secure control of key facilities. The rebel National Transitional Council tended to tread very lightly with these militias and insurgent groups, allowing them to operate and to run their respective areas without much interference.

The downside, however, is that now that the NTC is becoming a real interim government and acting a little more like a state, some of these groups are beginning to resent its authority. Commanders in the long-besieged town of Misrata, who always thought that they had been left a bit dry by Benghazi, were always inclined to gripe about the NTC. In Benghazi, meanwhile, the July assassination of rebel commander Abdel Fatah Younis by rogue militiamen prompted an attempt by the NTC to assert its control over local militias, which they resisted. Now some of the figures associated with the Islamist-leaning February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade have been hammering at the NTC’s authority, particularly that of globetrotting interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who spent much of the past six months outside Libya drumming up support for the rebellion — an extremely useful task, but not necessarily one which wins the respect of hardbitten fighters.

I don’t think that these disputes will necessarily boil over into a crisis. Libya’s rebels were well aware of Qaddafi’s description of them as a bunch of fanatics and thugs who would drag the country into chaos, and are anxious to preserve their revolution’s so-far relatively good international reputation. (The rounding-up of African migrants and their internment in makeshift prisons is the major black spot, so far). Also, the NTC’s chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, although more a symbolic than a hands-on leader, is also extremely popular — which is why those pushing back against NTC authority tend to focus on Jibril.

In the long-term, however, the rebels’ reluctance to cede control to the center may lead to a weak central government, with ex-rebels hanging onto confiscated state property, maintaining their own little militias, taking a cut out of local reconstruction contracts, charging their own taxes, and basically telling the Tripoli government to stay out of its business. This is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily the worst outcome for the country — it’s far preferable, say, to a Cuban model or Eritrean model, where a centralized guerilla movement became a centralized and dictatorial ruling party. As India shows, you can have lots of little dysfunctionally governed localities, and still have a functioning liberal democracy on the national level. Freedom first, rule of law a few generations later. Even if Libya’s central government stays weak, it does not mean that the revolution against Qaddafi will have been in vain.

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Israeli embassy gets breached

My thoughts on the “storming” (more properly, the reception room-trashing) of the Israeli embassy last night on, along with more analysis by Issandr and an excellent glimpse at Egyptian soccer fandom by Ursula. (The Ahli Ultras had a big role in Fridays’ demos, and presumably also in the attack on the embassy).

As a matter of general principle, I don’t think much of crowd action targeting embassies. If Egyptians really want to reshape its relationship with Israel, there should be a proper debate that encompasses Egypt’s treaty obligations, security concerns, its economic interests, and exactly how people think a scale-down of relations will benefit the Palestinians and/or Egypt’s national interest.

That being said, I do not think that this is an international crisis. No non-totalitarian state on the planet can prevent a few thousand soccer ultras from gathering and having a go at the politically sensitive building of their choice. That’s why it makes sense to put said embassies in sites where it’s fairly easy to do crowd control. A high-rise apartment in the middle of Giza, whose location is so ridiculous that it became the title of an Adel Imam vehicle, is not that kind of place. Soldiers did not look like they were trying too hard to stop the protesters from gaining access to the building, but this could have been because of poor prior planning (the only place to guard the embassy, once the wall was breached, would have been extremely exposed to rocks thrown from the bride) as well as a general lack of enthusiasm by the military lower ranks about protecting the interests of what many Egyptians consider a semi-hostile state.

Meanwhile, this whole fracas is obscuring Egypt’s ongoing wave of activism demanding action on issues much close to home. I am deeply gratified to see that somewhere in the country, at least a handful of Egyptians were out on the streets (or more properly, the Hurghada airport highway) demonstrating for road safety standards. Teachers came out today in downtown Cairo to push for higher wages.

Yesterday was a throwback to the 1990s, where any protest centered around domestic issues inevitably got sidetracked to Arab-Israeli stuff. If protesters have a realistic plan to use Egypt’s leverage in a way that actually is likely to affect Israeli policy, that would be one thing — but I have yet to see such a plan laid out. In the meantime, attacking an embassy is just lashing out at a convenient symbol.

Some interesting observations and details here in Egyptian Chronicles. I doubt that Israel deliberately intended to kill Egyptian soldiers. However, it’s certainly true that a similar number of IDF deaths would result in a lot more scrutiny into exactly what happened.

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The main factor preventing another 9/11 was not counterterrorism, but simple awareness that another attack could happen

A lot of the 10-year retrospection discussion on 9/11, the extent to which al-Qaeda has been degraded, the necessity or non-necessity of an Afghan invasion, seems to me to be missing a key point:

We could have taken no action at all against al-Qaeda after 9/11 — no Afghanistan invasion, no drones in Pakistan or Yemen, — and we probably still could have prevented another attack on that scale. I’m not saying that we should have taken this approach, but the single most critical factor in preventing a major attack was simply the awareness that someone was out there, trying to kill a lot of people in the United States.

A hijacked passenger jet is probably one of the few weapons capable of causing such destruction, that was also relatively easy for terrorists to obtain. And as of 9/12, no one was going to hand a jet over to terrorists. The 9/11 hijackers had such an easy time of it because of the “Common Strategy”, by which crews were trained not to resist hijackings. The Common Strategy was based on the assumption that hijackers wanted to simply to land the plane somewhere, and realize their demands.

It’s shocking, in retrospect, that this assumption and this protocol was maintained all through the 90s. But once it was thrown out, a flying fuel-filled missile was no longer available to anyone who walked to the cabin and demanded it.

An unmolested Al Qaeda would have retained the ability to train people to stage car or subway bombings, or bombings of individual aircraft. How much difference that training would have made is difficult to assess. But 90% of the organization’s ability to kill people inside the United States and other Western countries was lost when they exploited that one, easily-closed window of vulnerability.

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SCAF may tighten easy entry for foreigners

Egypt may be cancelling the practice of allowing visitors from Western and other (mostly wealthy) countries to get visas at the airport.

Okay, as a citizen of a country which requires Egyptians and visitors from many other nations to jump through an insane amount of hoops before they visit, I can’t get too indignant about this.

But — just because American policymakers have decided to inflict an own-goal on our economy and research infrastructure by reducing the flow of visitors, does not meant that other countries should follow suit.

There are obviously much bigger issues facing Egypt right now. But because this affects me directly, and because I think it reflects a rather unhelpful xenophobia in SCAF, I’ll vent a bit.

It’s a really poorly thought-out for a country so dependent on tourism. SCAF seems to think that it’s no problem to just apply for and receive a visa at your local consulate. Any bureaucratic requirement, no matter how much the state imagines that it’s just a formality, is going to take a toll. One would think that this lesson would have sunk in after decades of Nasser-imposed constriction of economic life, but maybe when you’re in the military, where everything is expedited for you, you don’t realize these things.

The extra hassle and lost time is going to turn away tourists, and their dollars. Also, business visitors and technical consultants. You want people coming and going.

Does SCAF really imagine that Egypt is so inundated with foreign spies and provocateurs that it’s worth damaging the economy to root them out?

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What’s next in Libya?

Here are a couple of articles I recently wrote from Libya for the Economist and Foreign Policy, largely looking forward to the kinds of issues which the country might face after the rebel victory:

For the atmosphere in Tripoli, I also highly recommend this piece by my colleague Nick Pelham.

One qualifier — I wrote in the Foreign Policy piece that Libyan Islamist who wanted to whip up populist fervor would lack a really credible secular, heretical, corrupt or non-Muslim Other with which to contrast themselves. (I don’t think that all Islamists do this, by the way, but some do, and probably someone will try to fill that political niche at some point, if it’s a good way to get support).

However, this doesn’t mean that people won’t try. There have been a couple of interviews by Ali and Ismail Salabi, two brothers associated with the Islamist-influenced Martyrs of February 17 Brigade, in which the two take pot-shots at the NTC.

Ali, a preacher, is by far the less confrontational of the two, and it’s notable that he acknowledges that the NTC’s provisional constitution is the way forward. The constitution pays lip service to Islamic sharia as “the principle source of legislation”, but that’s a standard feature in Arab constitutions and it doesn’t go much further than that.

Ismail, a businessman-turned-militia leader, seems to be looking to pick a political fight — he calls on the NTC’s executive committee to step down, and implies that the whole NTC are a bunch of couch-sitting, secularizing cosmopolitan elites who are looking to cut deals with ex-Qaddafi officials while others do the hard fighting.

We’ll see how far he gets. My impression is that while the Brigade has a fairly committed constituency in Benghazi, there are also a lot of people who distrust them — and outside Benghazi they have little support at all. But that is a very sketchy impression.


I also enjoyed Thomas Ricks’ brief snoot-cock at those who blithely predicted a quagmire in Libya.

While it’s obviously useful to be aware of the dangers of interventions-gone-wrong, like Iraq, it’s a mistake to expect that future interventions will fit the exact cookie-cutter template of the past ones. Libya like Iraq was an oil-rich Arab country, it had a nasty dictator, and the intervention involved Americans. But beyond that, there wasn’t much similarity. The big difference is that, when Nato intervened, the Libyan rebels had already liberated half the country. They were having severe problems holding onto it in the face of Qaddafi’s armored assault, but they clearly had demonstrated some capacity to organize an uprising, to win support across the country, to keep order in cities, to resolve their differences, etc.

This contrasts strongly with the non-Kurdish Iraqi transitional institutions and politicians, many of whom seem to expect the Americans to solve our their problems and provide all their resources. This is the difference between providing nick-of-time support on a Libyan timetable, and fighting a war of choice on our own timetable.

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Tripoli looks likely to fall

I’m currently in Benghazi. The city is rejoicing at the impending fall of Tripoli, but of course as a journalist I’m kind of on the wrong side the country from where I ought to be. I’m trying not to be too much of a killjoy. In a short while I’ll go out to join the crowds who flock to the corniche each Ramadan evening until around 2am or so, and try to catch some of the jubilation.

I may be premature in saying this, but the capture of the Khamis base and large chunks of Mitiga airbase suggests that the Qaddafi forces are suffering a fin-de-regime crisis of morale. They could just be consolidating for a final stand inside the city, but I think it a little more likely that his troops are going to start taking off their uniforms and fleeing to safe areas — to Sirte or the oasis of Sebha if they can, or simply just lying low in Tripoli. But I could be wrong — I never expected Qaddafi to have lasted this long, once Nato intervened, so maybe he’ll fight tenaciously on.

Rebel officials in Benghazi don’t seem too worried about what happens next. They expect a repeat of the fairly smooth transition here — that most officials will stay in their posts, that relatively few people will want to loot or carry out reprisals, and that there will be enough revolutionaries in the streets to keep order. They may be over-optimistic — Benghazi was held together by the shared sense of persecution during Qaddafi, and Tripoli is a much larger experience and seems to contain a much higher proportion of Qaddafi true believers. But the NTC has been pretty good about restricting reprisals and being as inclusive as possible of the different regions and grouping, and is acutely aware that it is an unelected body which must tread very carefully if it is to retain its legitimacy.

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Mubarak’s trial — so much for transparency

My blurb in the Economist on the decision to bar the cameras from Mubarak’s trial:

I don’t know what the judge’s rationale was, but it’s a pity. People everywhere really need to have an idea of what a criminal trial is like — why there’s a burden of proof, why you go through all the procedures, why the conclusions you draw from reading the papers don’t necessarily equate to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Okay, even in highly courtroom-literate societies, not everyone is going to fully wrap their heads around the idea of “burden of proof”, and why you protect the rights of the accused — witness the backlash against the Casey Anthony acquittal. But in Egypt, which has no tradition of televised trials, the idea that you need to go through extensive rigorous procedures, evaluating evidence, to pronounce someone guilty of an offense, is still pretty tenuous.

So, TV = good, when it comes to courtroom procedure. Judge Rifaat’s ruling is a real pity.

However, in addition to the TV issue, Egyptian trials are hard to follow on their own terms. Lots of key evidence is presented primarily in written form, so you don’t have the “reading into the record” which makes US trials comparably easy to follow. I think this is a problem with the French court trial system in general, not just Egypt’s version thereof.

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