Najla Abdurrahman is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. She comes from a family of Libyan-American dissidents, and has for several years been engaging in online activism to alert the outside world to the abuses and human-rights violations of the Gaddafi regime. In February she talked to National Review Online, advocating the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya. Today she follows up on Libya’s progress.
Matthew Shaffer: When the U.S. intervened, the conventional wisdom was that we were preventing a brutal crackdown on a uniform democratic movement by a rogue regime. Now the cynics characterize the conflict as a civil war, both of whose sides enjoy legitimate bases of support.
Najla Abdurrahman: I would completely reject the characterization of this as a civil war. Mahmoud Gibril Elwarfally, the interim prime minister, has been visiting the U.S. recently. As he pointed out at the Brookings Institution today, the press has tended to characterize this as one group of Libyans against another group of Libyans, and that is actually the propaganda strategy of the regime. Just to talk about the numbers, there is an overwhelmingly large portion of the population opposing a very small circle consisting of the regime and its supporters. People like me who come from Libya — the majority of exiles — we know that most of the supporters are from Tripoli, and that’s also where the media are because it’s the capital. So the media get a distorted picture. There is an attempt by the regime to make it seem as if their support is a lot wider than it is. And if you’ve been paying attention to the conflict, you’ll see that this uprising, or protests, or guerilla warfare in places like Misurata, have erupted spontaneously in every city in the country. So you can’t really characterize this as one side of the country against another.
Shaffer: So how is Qaddafi able to maintain support among his officer corps?
Abdurrahman: As much as I would like to believe that his support is not real, he does have a relatively small portion of the population who are his die-hard supporters, people who really would live and die for him. A lot of people think of it as this pope personality that surrounds him. Those people are there, as much as we might like to pretend that they are not. And then there are opportunists, who have benefited financially in the past from the regime, who, while it is or has been expedient, sort of either don’t take one side or the other, or just back him for the time-being. And this group has gotten smaller over the last weeks and months. It’s hard to say. But just remember that people in Misurata with very light weaponry have been able to stave off the attacks of a national army. But in reality they could only do that if this army was very small and very weak.
Shaffer: Have you been satisfied with the NATO-allied intervention so far?
Abdurrahman: I think a lot of Libyans were very pleased with what was happening when the Untied States was taking a leading role in it. When NATO took over in later weeks, a lot of Libyans felt that NATO was not doing a s good a job hitting targets as the U.S. has been doing. In the last few weeks, that opinion has changed, and people have been expressing more satisfaction with the job NATO has been doing.
Shaffer: Have the rebels lost their momentum?
Abdurrahman: No, I would disagree. Mahmound Gibril yesterday, in the evening he held an event with members of the Libyan community in Washington D.C. He spoke and Libyans from all over the country were in attendance. I agree with what he said, that there is no stalemate. Things are happening on the ground. It’s slow-going, but real progress is being made and Qaddafi’s strength is being chipped away at. We haven’t really seen him for the last two weeks, so some people think he might be injured, or he could be hiding. They played a video or audio of him a few minutes ago, but it was a very short minute or two-minute audio clip and it’s very difficult to verify when it was actually taped. But really we haven’t seen him for the last couple of weeks. So the Prime Minister was predicting yesterday that this might only last a few more weeks.
Shaffer: You supported the imposition of a no-fly zone, but you were against western boots on the ground. Would you support coalition efforts to directly assassinate Qaddafi, which some speculate the strikes on his compound were intended to do?
Abdurrahman: I think the mission they have now is adequate. And in the U.S. we have a spoken policy of not targeting other heads of state — although I don’t know if I would call Qaddafi a head of state. That’s a tough question.
Shaffer: Well I guess some might say the missile strikes on his compound are justified by the command-and-control center there, and his death could be a nice added benefit.
Abdurrahman: They have been doing that. What NATO has been saying is that the goal is not to kill Qaddafi, but then the strikes on the compound would seem to imply that it is a kind of unspoken goal. And that’s where his command and control center is; I’m not sure what else is there, but that’s the heart of his operation.
I can say personally as a Libyan, a lot of Libyans think that if that’s what it would take to end the violence and move forward, that would be acceptable. But there’s also a strong desire to see him alive and held accountable, and even brought up on charges of war crimes. And that for most people would be a lot more satisfying than him being assassinated.
Shaffer: Are current coalition efforts enough to make a win by the rebels an inevitability or at least highly probable, so that they could capture him?
Abdurrahman: You don’t hear this a lot in the news, but in Tripoli, if you talk to anybody there, there are protests that are starting up again. A couple of neighborhoods have been seeing renewed demonstrations. So I think of this as a chemical reaction, the kind where it is sort of slow-going in the beginning and it reaches a critical point and then it explodes. I think everything that is happening right now is having a critical impact, and is slowly chipping away at the problem, and that if things continue the way they do it will come to a head and a good end.
Shaffer: If Qaddafi is successfully deposed, how ready are the rebels to form their own government?
Abdurrahman: I really recommend the talk at Brookings. I went in skeptical and I came out actually quite impressed — he sort of outlined a bit of the planning that the committees and the planning that they’re already starting to do. He mentioned Iraq specifically and he mentioned the game-plan for the need to have something ready for that situation. The fact that it’s taken so long for this revolution or conflict or whatever you want to call it to come to a conclusion is that it has actually given these people time to actually think about these things and actually think about a plan. They’re really thinking ahead of right now in terms of reconciliation, in terms of development, in terms of political inclusion, in terms of bigger things than are happening right now.
…and the protests continue, only more intensely, with 14 more killed this week. Anthony Shahid reports a few interesting developments:
The Syrian government has sent signals to allies, in particular neighboring Turkey, that it is prepared to undertake some reform and begin a dialogue with opponents. But after a series of half-hearted concessions — sweeping in rhetoric but negligible in impact — the government repeatedly has met protesters with tear gas and live fire and sent its security forces to arrest thousands, by activists’ count, sometimes going door to door and randomly picking up any man older than 15.
The government has dismissed the estimates, saying it is engaged in a fight with militant Islamists, and American officials acknowledge that some protesters have been armed. Syrian television is suffused with images of soldiers’ burials. On Sunday, the Syrian news agency said that the authorities had seized sophisticated weapons and that the army was pursuing “armed terrorist groups” in Baniyas and elsewhere.
“The upper hand is with the hard-liners,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights advocate who is a visiting scholar at George Washington University. “Now the official discourse is that we are in a period of instability, that we have to restore stability and that we can then talk again about reform. This is the official language.”
Though the government appears to feel more secure — at least compared with two weeks ago — it faces a landscape indelibly changed by the seven weeks of unrest. The economy is reeling, threatening the government’s support among the economic elite and undermining the longstanding promise by the government of economic modernization, if not political reform.
Post-”Spring,” Egypt seems to be having some trouble exhibiting national unity. David Kirkpatrick reports from Cairo on violence surrounding Egypt’s Christians:
A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames on Sunday in the latest outbreak of sectarian tensions in the three months since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening the recovery of Egypt’s tourist economy and the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy.
Officials of the Interior Ministry said at least six Christians and at least six Muslims had died, and about 220 people were wounded, including at least 65 who were struck by bullets.
The Egyptian authorities vowed a swift response. The military council governing the country announced military trials for 190 people arrested in the violence. Civilian authorities promised increased security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside such institutions. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to preside over an emergency cabinet meeting, and Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the sheik of Al Azhar, denounced the violence.
“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said after the cabinet meeting, vowing to strike “with an iron hand” to preserve national security.
… the law, inaugurated mid-March, is scheduled to end June 1st. Not that this actually represents an important step to liberalization. Many of the leaders of the protests are already in jail, some are standing trial right now. This is likelier an effort to make things look stable and good for finance.
On another Friday “day of rage.” And the crackdown shows no signs of abating as the West has still imposed no sanctions on Syria. Via NYT:
Soldiers fired on protesters carrying olive branches and seeking to break the military’s siege of a rebellious town in Syria on Friday, killing at least 16 people, as thousands took to the streets in what organizers proclaimed a “Friday of Rage” against the government’s crackdown on a six-week uprising, witnesses and activists said.
The bloodshed in the besieged town, Dara’a, was the worst episode on another violent Friday. At least 40 people were killed across the country, repeating a cycle that has become a fixture of the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s four decades of dictatorial rule. For weeks, demonstrators have poured into the streets after noon prayers, only to face the determination of the government to disperse them, often with live ammunition.
But the cries of grief in Dara’a and angry chants in dozens of towns and cities on Friday seemed to signal a new dynamic in the uprising. As much as calls for freedom and an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the protest movement appeared to be feeding off its own symbols and legitimacy, as the demonstrators’ anger grows over the suffering inflicted on Dara’a and the deaths of more than 500 protesters — by activists’ count — since March.
They’re mostly low-level, and I’m skeptical of whether this is the beginning of a trend, or whether it will have any substantial effect, as the Syrian elite are bound together by ethno-religious solidarity and shared fate. But it could be something to watch:
Some 200 members of Syria’s ruling Baath party are reported to have resigned over the violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations.
The resignations were centred on the southern city of Deraa, a focal point of violence that has allegedly killed 450 people in six weeks.
Shooting was heard in Deraa overnight, where the government this week sent tanks and troops to regain control.
“In view of the negative stance taken by the leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath Party towards the events in Syria and in Deraa, and after the death of hundreds and the wounding of thousands at the hands of the various security forces, we submit our collective resignation,” said the statement.
According to one diplomat, the death toll from the crackdowns and civil war combined is likely between 10,000 and 30,000. Via The Lede:
Gene Cretz, the American ambassador to Libya, said that the death toll in Libya after more than two months of violence could reach as high as 30,000.
Acknowledging that it is very hard to gauge how many people have died in the unrest, the government crackdown on protests and the subsequent fighting between rebel and pro-government forces, Mr. Cretz said that United States officials had seen estimates ranging from 10,000 to 30,000.
“I don’t think we’re probably going to get an accurate number until we really get more hands-on experience on the ground,” Mr. Cretz told reporters in Washington. “We just have no sense of the scale of this thing until it’s over.”
Mr. Cretz also said that the Transitional National Council in rebel-controlled Benghazi is a “political body that is worth our support,” but he stopped short of recognizing the council as the country’s legitimate government, as France and Italy have.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown against pro-democracy protesters “has reached a decisive point.”
“By following the path of [Qadhafi] and deploying military forces to crush peaceful demonstrations, al-Assad and those loyal to him have lost the legitimacy to remain in power in Syria,” the senators said. “We urge President Obama to state unequivocally — as he did in the case of Qadhafi and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak — that it is time for Assad to go.”
On Wednesday Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, criticized Obama’s response to the unrest in Syria and called for sanctions and the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador.
More than 450 people have been killed by Syrian security forces amid weeks of anti-government demonstrations, according to The Associated Press.
Obama, the senators said Thursday, should pursue sanctions and other “tangible diplomatic and economic measures” to pressure leaders of the al-Assad regime to stop the crackdown…
“Rather than hedging our bets or making excuses for the Assad regime, it is time for the United States, together with our allies in Europe and around the world, to align ourselves unequivocally with the Syrian people in their peaceful demand for a democratic government.”
On Monday, army tanks entered Dara’a, the center of some much of Syria’s protests, in what was largely seen as a pivotal escalation on the Assads’ crackdown (they had previously relied on security forces, not the military). Reports emerging from inside the city now are quite frightening:
In the besieged city of Dara’a, which has become a symbol of Syria’s uprising, residents on Wednesday told of shortages of bread and even baby formula. Some stick a pole wrapped in a scarf out the door to see whether snipers are lurking. Doctors in a mosque have resorted to using sewing needles to stitch wounds, amid shortages of bandages and disinfectant.
Some spoke of moments of camaraderie in the three-day blockade, as Palestinians from nearby refugee camps ferried canned food and bread by foot to Dara’a, a poor border town in a drought-stricken region where protests last month galvanized nationwide demonstrations. Others spoke of a deepening fear of snipers by day, raids by night and people so scared they would not open their doors, even to neighbors.
“Dara’a and its hinterland are a ghost town,” one resident of the area said as he fled across the border to Jordan on Wednesday. “You can’t go in and you can’t go out.”
As the crackdown in Dara’a entered its fourth day on Thursday, opposition activists reported a growing number of resignations from the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria in some fashion since 1963. Though the figures did not occupy senior positions, activists said the resignations were symbolically important, signaling the willingness of people to defy the inevitable repercussions and forego the privileges that membership secured.
Four Shiite protesters sentenced to death today, in the first trials related to the demonstrations that rocked Pearl Square earlier this year, with the combined Khalifa, Saudi, and UAE forces having largely quelled the protests. Hopefully not a sign of things to come:
A military court in Bahrain sentenced four Shiite protesters to death after convicting them on Thursday of killing two policemen during anti-government demonstrations last month, state media said.
Three other Shiite activists, who were also on trial, were sentenced to life in prison after they were convicted of playing a role in the policemen’s deaths.
The verdicts — which can be appealed — were the first related to Bahrain’s uprising. The kingdom’s Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination and is campaigning for greater freedoms and equal rights in the tiny, Sunni-ruled island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Bahraini human rights groups blasted the verdict and said the trial, conducted in secrecy, had no legal credibility and was politically motivated.
“This verdict is a message from the government, determined to stop the democracy movement,” said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “It’s a warning saying ‘this is how we will treat you if you continue to demand your rights.’”
Faced with unprecedented political unrest, Bahrain’s king declared martial law and invited troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf countries to help quell Shiite dissent after weeks of street marches and bloody clashes in the capital Manama. At least 30 people have died since Feb. 15, when the anti-government protests erupted. Four opposition supporters have also died in police custody.
They couldn’t even get a press statement condemning the violence, over the strong objections of Russia… Via NYT:
An attempt by the United States and its European allies to condemn Syria in the United Nations Security Council was rebuffed on Wednesday, as the willingness to intervene in the region — strong enough to lead to military action against Libya under similar circumstances just weeks ago — appeared to evaporate.
Envoys for several wary Council members that had agreed to at least abstain in the vote against Libya, particularly Russia, spoke out against any international intervention on Wednesday, while Lebanon would have found it impossible to support criticism given the influence Syria holds over it. The required unanimity among the 15 members for a press statement was impossible.
“The current situation in Syria, despite the increase in tension, does not represent a threat to international peace and security,” said Alexander Pankin, the Russian deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. Intervening would be “an invitation to civil war,” he said. All council members addressed the body after it became clear that no consensus would emerge.
More on the U.N. Security Council meeting here. Syria is resorting to the claim that the protesters are not, as it were, autochthonous, but are motored by foreign elements. Possible sanctions and resolutions were opposed by Russia, China, and Lebanon:
“This unrest and riots in some of their aspects have hidden agendas,” Mr. Jaafari told reporters. “Some armed groups take advantage of the demonstrations; they get within the demonstrators and start shooting on the military men and the security forces. This is why there are many casualties.”
Mr. Jaafari also defended President Bashar Assad’s record, saying that more political reforms were coming on the heels of Mr. Assad’s decision to lift the emergency law.
“President Assad is a reformer himself, and he should be given the chance to fulfill his mission in reforming the political life in the country,” he said.
Government opponents openly mock both assertions. Syrians, not foreign agitators, are demanding basic freedoms that have been denied them for the 40 years in which the Assad family has run the country, they say. Although Mr. Assad, 45, promised reform when he inherited the presidency from his father 11 years ago, he has put none in place — instead, they say, the government has strangled any nascent reform movement by jailing its leaders for years.
But efforts by the Security Council to issue the mildest of statements criticizing Syria was postponed until at least Wednesday afternoon. Several member states — Russia, China and Lebanon — seemed firmly opposed, diplomats said, although the ambassadors of China and Lebanon would only note that further discussion was scheduled.
Over 100 Syrians were killed during Friday’s post-prayer protests. Now tanks are entering Deraa, one of the main centers of demonstrations. Via Al Jazeera:
More deaths have been reported in Syria where thousands of troops backed by tanks and heavy armour have swept into the volatile town of Deraa in the south of the country and the large Damascus suburb of Douma.
Security forces also continued a crackdown in the coastal town of Jableh for a second day.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said the government’s offensive on Monday was an “unprecedented” offensive against the wave of dissent that has swept the country since the uprising began on March 15.
Witnesses in Deraa told news agencies on Monday that at least five people had been killed when gunmen opened fire on a car.
The vehicle was riddled with bullets, a witness told AFP. Intense gunfire could be heard reverberating across the town, he added.
Mission creep much? David Kirkpatrick reports:
NATO warplanes struck Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s compound here early Monday and bombed a state television facility in an escalation of the air campaign to aid the rebellion against his four decades in power.
The attack on the compound was the third since air raids began in mid-March, but the strike at the television facility was the most significant broadening yet of the NATO air campaign, suggesting that nonmilitary targets would be hit in an effort to break down the instruments of Colonel Qaddafi’s broader control.
A senior Libyan government official said Monday that the strike knocked state television off the air for about half an hour.
In the port of Misurata, 130 miles east of the capital, rebels reported that a widely publicized government pullback had given way to renewed shelling by government forces outside the city. The initial withdrawal by pro-Qaddafi forces over the weekend after a nearly two-month siege had bewildered some rebels.
Via the New York Times:
Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said Saturday that he accepted a proposal by Arab mediators that would shift power to his deputy 30 days from the signing of a formal agreement and grant him and his family, who occupy key positions in Yemen’s security apparatus, immunity from prosecution.
Mr. Saleh is a wily political survivor, and it was unclear whether his offer to step down was a real attempt to calm the political turmoil and growing demonstrations that have rocked his country for months or a way to shift blame for a stalemate to the opposition. His offer follows days of unrelenting pressure to step aside from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states fearful of more instability in the region.
The president’s announcement set off a flurry of political maneuvering and meetings, but by the end of the night, it was far from clear that it would end the deadlock and ease him from power after 32 years of autocratic rule.
The agreement would require the opposition to halt the street protests and to take part in a coalition with Mr. Saleh’s ruling party. The opposition’s leader, Yassin Saeed Noman, said his coalition accepted the agreement in principle, but rejected those conditions, preferring to allow Mr. Saleh’s party to govern until he resigns and then join a power-sharing government. Mr. Noman also said the opposition lacked the power to force protesters from the streets.
Friday is the traditional day of protests in Muslim countries — the beginning of the weekend, and a day during which large numbers are concentrated together in mosques for morning prayers. Tomorrow, the by now long-simmering demonstrations in Syria could come to a head, at least according to those organizing the demonstrations. Tomorrow will be a particularly hard push, and, if the Assads’ past behavior is any indication, a particularly hard push back as well. The Assads are already getting ready. Via the Times:
Syria deployed the police, soldiers and military vehicles in two of the country’s three largest cities Thursday ahead of a call for nationwide protests that will test the popular reception of reforms decreed by President Bashar al-Assad and signal the momentum that organizers have sought to bring to a five-week uprising.
Residents described a mobilization in the capital, Damascus, and, in more pronounced fashion, the restive city of Homs, where a government crackdown this week dispersed one of the largest gatherings since demonstrations began last month. For days, organizers have looked to Friday as a potential show of strength for a movement that has yet to build the critical mass that protests eventually achieved in Egypt and Tunisia.
“Together toward freedom,” read a Facebook page that has served as a pulpit of the uprising, over symbols of Christianity and Islam. “One heart, one hand, one goal.”
The calculus of both sides ahead of Friday’s protests is the same: to prove they have the upper hand in the biggest challenge yet to the 40-year rule of Mr. Assad’s family. While organizers were reluctant to call Friday a decisive moment, they acknowledged that it would signal their degree of support in a country that remains divided, with the government still claiming bastions of support among minorities, loyalists of the Baath Party and wealthier segments of the population.
“People are still hesitant,” said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a human rights group. But he added, “If it’s not this Friday, it will be the coming Friday.”
The demonstrations may serve as a referendum of sorts on President Assad’s commitment to do away with the emergency laws in place since 1963 and institute a series of reforms like allowing civil liberties and abolishing draconian courts, which the president formally signed on Thursday. Some have called his promises a hard-won gain of an uprising that has shaken the Assad family, while others have been dismissive of initiatives that may prove elusive and that seemed aimed at blunting the demonstrations’ momentum.
This is the fourth attempt, but this one looks like it has a chance of working — if the demonstrators will accept it. Via the New York Times:
The arrangement calls for the president to hand over power immediately and step down in 30 days, and sets up new presidential elections 60 days later, a Yemeni official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It also calls for an immediate end to protests.
The plan was finalized after council members and Yemeni officials met for two days in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It adheres in part to a draft promoted by the United States and the European Union, which also allows immunity from prosecution for Mr. Saleh and his family…
An opposition leader, Mohammed Abdulmalik al-Mutawakil, said that another reservation about the new proposal was its lack of clarity over what would happen to the divisions of the army that the president’s son and nephews control. An overwhelming distrust of Mr. Saleh colors the debate.
“The first thing is that no one trusts him at all,” Mr. Mutawakil said. “Who can guarantee that everything will be carried out?”
Via a Reuters flash report. This is one way to keep American boots of the ground; and there’s no doubt, foreign-policy insiders all suggest, that Obama has generally loved the use of unmanned drones in Pakistan.
The United States is starting to use armed Predator drones in Libya to target Muammar Gaddafi’s forces after President Barack Obama approved their use, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
The unmanned aircraft, already used to target militants along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, will allow for more precise attacks against Gaddafi’s forces, Mr. Gates told a news conference.
“He [President Obama] has approved the use of armed Predators,” Mr. Gates said.
More from Forbes:
entagon chief Robert Gates says President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft in Libya.
Gates told a Pentagon news conference that the Predator is an example of the unique U.S. military capabilities that Obama is willing to contribute to a coalition military campaign in Libya, while other countries enforce a no-fly zone.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, speaking alongside Gates, said the first Predator mission was scheduled for Thursday but it was scratched due to poor weather. Cartwright said the Predators allow low-level precision attacks on Libyan government forces.