The Case for Optimism in Libya

by Matthew Shaffer

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. 

Week 7 in Syria

by Matthew Shaffer

…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.

Chaos in Egypt

by Matthew Shaffer

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 ministerEssam 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.

Bahrain Says Emergency Law Will be Lifted

by Matthew Shaffer

… 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.


40 More Killed in Syria

by Matthew Shaffer

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.


200 Baath Party Members Resign in Syria

by Matthew Shaffer

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.

30,000 Dead in Libya?

by Matthew Shaffer

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.