Monthly Archives: February 2011

Arab democratization requires avoiding military dictatorships, failed states and tyrannical majorities

I'm beginning this essay with a bold and possibly foolhardy assumption: that the wave of protests throughout much of the Arab world, and what is increasingly drifting in the direction of a violent revolution in Libya, will eventually lead democratization and real reform in many Arab states. This hasn't happened yet, of course. In Tunisia, where it all began, certainly there's a lot more freedom now by all accounts than there was under Ben Ali, but protesters recently found that when they went into the streets again, there was a rather familiar government response: they were beaten up. The same thing happened when small protests reemerged in Egypt. In both of those countries, the process of reform is underway, but where it will lead is totally unclear as yet. Islamists, led regionally by the elderly fanatic Yusuf Qaradawi, are slowly but surely introducing their agenda into what has, thus far, to all appearances been a secular, ecumenical and fundamentally nationalist set of movements. In Egypt and Tunisia, "people power" did not exactly unseat the hated dictators, but forced the militaries in both countries, which were unprepared to open fire on their own people, to perform “soft coups,” removing the individual dictators from power and shipping them and their families out of the country or to remote areas.

Utopian and dystopian scenarios look the same at this point
The problem is that both the utopian and dystopian scenarios in Tunisia and Egypt would look exactly the same at this stage, so it's impossible to tell where this is all really heading. In Egypt, for example, a real transition towards democracy would involve the dissolving of a parliament elected recently under very dubious circumstances; the suspension of the Constitution and the formation of a committee to draft a new and presumably better one; the release of at least some political prisoners and opening up of political space; and the initiation of a period of transition presided over by the military which can maintain order while working with the remnants of the old regime and with opposition groups to craft a new system that is acceptable to a broad range of society. That's exactly what's happening. Unfortunately, a dystopian scenario leading to Pakistan-style military rule would look about the same at this stage: dissolving of the parliament, suspension of the Constitution, military control of the process through which a new system is developed, etc.

Even if it is the intention, as I strongly suspect it is, of the Egyptian military to oversee a transition in which it once again recedes into the sidelines of Egyptian politics, that may prove difficult to actually accomplish. Certainly Egyptian military culture has held that while it is not only acceptable but expected that former senior officers, once they are retired, can and in many cases will become senior government officials, the Army itself is not supposed to have a role in domestic politics. But now it does. And after months of being in control, and getting a good, long, hard look at the kind of civilian politicians and their petty machinations during the process of crafting a new system, the Army may well start kid itself that it alone can secure peace and stability in Egypt, run the country efficiently, and preserve the national interest. This has happened countless times in numerous developing states around the world. This could happen in Egypt in spite of the best intentions at the moment by the General Staff, assuming they have them. This impulse would be greatly intensified if it appeared that Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood were becoming increasingly well positioned to seize and hold power in a parliamentary process or other democratic structures, or to seize power through extraconstitutional means of one variety or another. So the same process that's underway at the moment could lead to democratization or it could lead to and extended period of military rule, and it's almost impossible to tell at this stage where things are really leading.

Extended violence could lead to extremism and/or national fragmentation
As I've written and said many times in the past, the violence in Libya is a grave threat to the prospect of a positive outcome to the Libyan uprising. The ruthlessness, indeed insanity, of the Qaddafi regime really does have the potential to create national fragmentation if the conflict is protracted, or to produce radicalized, extreme opposition groups that could come to power locally or nationally if the violence is greatly intensified and drags on for a long time. Again, the historical precedents for this grim process are myriad. Qaddafi is threatening his people with incredible violence from himself, and his continuous insistence on invoking the gruesome specter of bin Laden, Zawahiri and even the late, monstrous figure of Zarqawi no less, is designed to frighten Libyans into fearing that because he will not go without a bloodbath, the outcome could produce new leaders or organizations, radicalized to the point of psychosis, as happened in Algeria, Iraq, Peru, Cambodia and many other societies wracked by brutal civil war.

Reasons to hope for an Arab renaissance
So, obviously, while the outcome of the relatively orderly processes underway in Tunisia and Egypt is not clear, the danger is in Libya, and of course in areas where protests are steadily gaining steam, particularly in Yemen, is even more uncertain. However, there are very powerful grounds for optimism that what we are seeing are the birth pangs of a new Arab renaissance after an extended dark age of cultural obscurantism, political sclerosis, misrule and corruption, religious fanaticism and economic decay. The behavior of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square was anything but that of an anarchical mob baying for blood. It was highly organized under almost impossible circumstances, dignified, nationalistic, secular, ecumenical, respectful, and displayed a very refined degree of social consciousness. Protesters displayed wisdom in maintaining the discipline of nonviolence under grave provocation, and the political sophistication to welcome the military with open arms, which certainly was a crucial factor in avoiding a confrontation and a bloodbath. Books will be written, both worthy and ridiculous (brace yourself for some of the most ridiculous academic anthropology and sociology theorizing coming soon to a peer-reviewed journal or academic press near you on this subject), about the spontaneous organization in the “Tahrir Republic,” the organization of neighborhood watch committees, spontaneous public protection of the National Museum and other crucial installations, and the enforcement of certain kinds of law and order, particularly against looting, by spontaneously organized groups of citizens. This is a people not only yearning for self-governance, but who have proven more than capable of it under very difficult circumstances. The icing on the cake was that, after celebrating the removal of Mubarak by the Army, the protesters returned to the Square the next day and cleaned it up, handing it back to the military authorities in fairly pristine condition. This is a display of national and social consciousness that should leave no one in any doubt that the urban middle, lower-middle, and working classes of Cairo and other cities in Egypt are a people as ready for self-government as any other in the world. They know what the right thing to do is, and they were ready, willing and able to do it at great risk to themselves, animated not by religious gobbledygook but by national and social consciousness.

A very similar attitude has been on display in Tunisia, and in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, even though, as I've written before, the Bahraini case is slightly different than many of the other Arab protests. What this suggests is that the protests that we've seen so far were not simply about removing individuals, or even changing systems or expressing pent-up economic and political frustrations, but were also very much about demonstrating the readiness of Arabs to embrace well-functioning, equitable, self-governing social orders. There are also indications of this mentality — a yearning for genuine social order based on real rules and accountability that is equitable — is coming out of liberated parts of Libya such as Benghazi and the other cities free of the control of the Gaddafi regime. So even if military rulers were to try to impose long-term control over these societies, they might find themselves facing another round of major protests, and this is already beginning to happen in Egypt and Tunisia where dissatisfaction with the pace of change and with the continuation of too many facets of the old national security states are starting to boil the pot again.

The dangers ahead
The dangers of this kind of uncontrolled, spontaneous movement for change in many Arab states are significant, and they include military dictatorships, Islamist takeovers through elections and/or seizure of power, national fragmentation, and extended civil conflict. Malefactors are everywhere and, as Qaddafi is proving, some old orders don't only die hard, they kill enthusiastically and for as long as possible. But at a cultural level, the essential elements of an Arab spring, a real cultural, social and political renaissance in the Arab world at long last, are readily discernible for the first time in decades if not centuries. I think that's why the movement spread like wildfire throughout the region and has captured the imagination of Arab peoples in almost every country in the Middle East. It's even inspired the reigniting of the Green Movement in Iran. Anyone who isn't optimistic about where this can go isn't doing justice to the evident animating spirit of the Arab protest movements in general. However, anyone who isn't concerned about dystopian outcomes isn't being realistic about the potential dangers.

There is one serious concern that hasn't received enough attention either from the euphoric, triumphalist voices heralding the new Arab spring/Renaissance, or from the dysphoric, alarmist voices, mainly on the American, European, and above all, Israeli, right wing. Assuming that the three most obvious dystopian scenarios can be avoided in the Arab states that will undergo major transformations in the coming months and years — military dictatorships, Islamist takeovers, and national fragmentation, failed statehood or chaos — the question will then be how best to manage the emergence of a new, democratic order in much of the Arab world and what are the pitfalls to be most assiduously avoided?

Elections alone and majority rule are NOT democracy
There is a danger that too many political orientations in the Arab world have confused democracy with elections and the majority rule, and not fully assimilated the other side of the democratic, republican coin, which is protection of individual and minority rights and limitations on the power of government. The essence of democracy, of course, is a balance between the right of majorities or majority coalitions to exercise the fundamental functions of government on the one hand,  with inalienable rights of individual citizens, minority groups of various kinds, women and others, on the other hand. In other words, a real democracy doesn't merely involve enacting the will of the majority, whatever it might be at any given moment. It means doing so with strict limitations as to how far the government can go in intruding on the rights of individuals and minorities, and other limitations on government actions.

Most people in the Arab world, with the exception of the most extreme Islamists, seem to have understood that government legitimacy must stem from elections that gain the consent of the governed, and this understanding even extends to many Islamists, including many Muslim Brotherhood parties such as the one in Egypt. It's true that Islamists aren't necessarily committed to elections as such, but many of them do seem to have understood that there is no other way to guarantee the legitimacy of a government, and many of them, such as the more mainstream Islamist organizations in Egypt and Jordan, seem to feel it is their best path to power, and they're probably right. It's a grim truth that during the 20th century Salafists and other Islamists have managed to redefine Islam in the eyes of many Muslims in a very narrow-minded, obscurantist, and non-traditional manner in the name of a faux-authenticity and a fatuous and completely fictional “return” to the alleged principles of the early stages of Islamic history. And it's also true that in many Arab societies, Islamist parties would probably do very well in elections, although that may have more to do with their degree of organization and party discipline than their mass appeal.

It's important to note that Islamist rhetoric and religious identity was not only not at the forefront of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, it was barely evident at all. Of course in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was very much involved in the protests, and deliberately kept their rhetoric off the table and stayed in the background. They strategically decided not to overplay their hand, and it was a smart thing to do. It's clear that their hope is that while a secular, ecumenical and nationalist movement will create a new, open political space in Egypt, and hopefully a parliamentary democracy, that they will be the primary beneficiaries because they are the best organized and most disciplined political party other than the discredited NDP. So, in keeping with their founding Leninist party structure and strategy (although not, of course, content or ideology), they are willing to let the popular uprisings sweep the Ancien Régime from power, confident (rightly or wrongly) that they will be among the main beneficiaries of a newly open political system and can attain great influence if not seize power either through the ballot box or as a result of potential ensuing chaos if things go badly or spiral out of control. In short, the Egyptian protests especially, and the whole wave of change in the Arab world more generally, have been a mixed bag for the Islamists. On the one hand, their ideology was not the one that brought millions of people into the streets, and the political symbolism of the revolution has nothing to do with their own. On the other hand, no doubt they feel that they can sit back and wait for space to open up and be well positioned to gain more power than they have ever had in the past, if not seize control of government outrightly.

The prospect of military dictatorship can probably only be combated by more people power, popular rejection of any kind of extended military rule that is regarded by majorities as unacceptable or simply a continuation of the national security states without the old and essentially symbolic figureheads like Mubarak and Ben Ali. National fragmentation, failed statehood and chaos are, I think, unlikely in most if any Arab cases in the near future (other than Iraq and Lebanon, obviously), and would probably be the result of protracted conflicts to remove dictatorships such as may be emerging in Libya. The cure for this is quick resolution with international support, which is why I have been reluctantly advocating for asset freezes, targeted sanctions, travel bans, weapons sale bans, and even a country-wide no-fly zone in Libya for almost 10 days now. But I do think there are very few regimes, although honestly I can think of at least two others, that might resort to such extreme violence even though they are not led by certifiable lunatics. At any rate, those dangers are largely in the hands of the dictatorships, and the people and the most of the opposition groups are unlikely wish for such an outcome and can be relied upon to work against it at least in the initial phases of any uprising. Of course, if local factions come to power in certain regions, then national fragmentation becomes a very lively possibility because people are loathe to give up quasi-governmental authority once they've got it (the same temptation that will apply to the militaries as they rule for “transitional periods” that might not prove all that transitional in practice).

The threat of tyrannical majorities
The final obvious danger facing the Arab peoples as their revolts/revolutions proceed is the most difficult one to manage, and in many ways the most serious: the installation of democracy resulting in the rule of a tyrannical majority. As I noted above, most people in the Arab world, including many Islamists, have interpolated and accepted the idea that government legitimacy is best secured through elections. However, the notion that there should be strict limitations on the will of the majority may not be as clearly understood by as many people as necessary. The only real way to combat the potential of tyrannical majority rule through parliamentary democracy impinging on individual, minority and women's rights, among other concerns, is the development of constitutions with very strong limitations on government powers, backed up by an army whose loyalty is to the Constitution and not to the elected parliament.

The most obvious case in point is the Algerian model from the early 90s, a veritable textbook of how not to do democratic transitions in the Arab world (or anywhere else for that matter). The Algerian ruling elite and junta decided, for various reasons, to transition to a parliamentary democracy. But they made the most fundamental error possible: they crafted a Constitution that was infinitely and openly amenable by nothing more than a supermajority of Parliament! After the first round of voting in 1991, in a two-round process, it became clear that the Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), which had already swept local and municipal elections across the country, was poised to almost certainly gain exactly such a supermajority in the very first democratically elected parliament. It would therefore probably have been able to amend the Constitution in anyway it pleased under the law, a prospect that was utterly unacceptable to the military, the ruling party, and much of the secularized Algerian elite. In January 1992, the military canceled the second round of elections, and replaced President Chadli Bendjedid with a new leader, the old revolutionary Mohammed Boudiaf. A state of emergency was declared, FIS leaders rounded up and given lengthy prison terms, and its cadres thrown into concentration camps in the Sahara desert. By 1993 the situation had deteriorated into civil war, which eventually claimed the lives of at least 100,000 Algerians and led to the emergence of some of the most extreme Salafist-Jihadist groups the Arab world has ever seen (as I mentioned in my last Ibishblog essay).

The lessons from the Algerian experience are crystal clear: the problem was not that the military and the junta decided to move towards democratization. That was a good thing, and a good idea. The problem also was not that a (relatively moderate) Islamist party was likely to be elected to a strong majority in parliament, although obviously that's an outcome that would dismay me and many other people. But the presence and possible success of right wing religious parties is not an argument for refusing to create democracies. The problem was that the Constitution was so poorly crafted that it allowed for something as commonplace as a parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution in an unimpeded manner. This means that whatever protections were put in place for individual citizens, minorities, women, and other limitations on government power would have been essentially meaningless in the face of an immediate Islamist supermajority in the very first democratic parliament ever elected in Algeria. This initial idiotic mistake led to a second idiotic mistake: the extreme overreaction of the government that led inevitably to a state of civil war which predictably degenerated into a level of savagery on both sides that is still not fully comprehended by most people outside of Algeria.

The need for strong constitutional protections for individuals, minorities and women
Arab democracy is, hopefully, coming, and if it does it's going to include a fairly strong presence of right-wing religious organizations that might do quite well in elections. This is already the case in many democracies, including ultra-conservative Catholic groups in Latin America and elsewhere, the evangelical Christian right in the United States, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, the RSS and other Hindu extremists in India, and many other examples around the world. They should peacefully and politically be fought tooth and nail, because their message and agenda is divisive and, if they are not restrained, they have a tendency to become extremely oppressive and abusive towards individuals and minorities, and especially to women. Islamism and other right wing religious politics tends, in practice, to look more like misogyny in terms of its policies than anything else, and it's anti-woman agenda is crystal clear.

The best way to restrain them is not to resist democratization, but create democracies in which individual, minority and women's rights, and other clear restrictions on government power are inviolable, and backed up by militaries that are committed to upholding the Constitution but not interfering with the legitimate exercise of constitutional, limited political power. It may be that the Arab world has to go through a period in which Islamists are given a chance to prove that they have no answers, no real economic development program, no sense of how to govern effectively, no less corruption than other political factions, and to give people a taste of how unpalatable their ultra-conservative social programs might be within the limitations of the rights cited above. They should probably be given a chance, if people really want that, to prove their uselessness, and the inherent vapidity of their ideology and political agenda. The nationalistic and ecumenical tendencies clearly evident in the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and indeed elsewhere, indicate that there are strong countervailing political tendencies in the Arab world, and alarmism is no reason to reject democracy. But it has to be done right. And the right way is to create constitutions that provide powerful, inviolable protections for vulnerable groups and individuals, and especially women, restrain government action, and that prevents the emergence of tyrannical majorities.

What’s really at stake for the United States in Libya

This evening Pres. Obama signed an executive order blocking assets and prohibiting certain key transactions with Libya, the first major American effort to respond in a practical manner to the outrageous behavior of the Qaddafi regime. In my view, as my readers will know, this is not a moment too soon. For the past few days I've been advocating freezing of assets, various economic sanctions, travel restrictions on Libyan officials, and, with a heavy heart, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. While I know a great many people agree with me, and increasingly so, numerous friends have questioned the wisdom of any such strong response, so I feel that it's incumbent on me and others who advocate such measures to explain exactly what it is we think is in it for the United States and the rest of the international community.

The downsides of action:
Obviously, a short-term, amoral, and purely self-interested analysis would suggest that the simple answer is nothing, which helps explain the reticence of the West to respond vigorously to the incredibly violent behavior of the Libyan government and the increasingly bloodcurdling threats from Qaddafi himself. My point is that even if we are to take principles such as the Responsibility to Protect and the question of fundamental morality off the table, there are still important strategic and political reasons for getting involved vigorous and quickly. I've been very clear about the risks involved in my recent articles and blog postings, and I've tried not to shy away from the real dangers attached. These include threats to Westerners still in Libya and some Western economic interests; the possibility that Western, and especially American, engagement might be used as an excuse by the Qaddafi regime to bolster its ridiculous accusations that the uprising is a Western and/or Al Qaeda plot; the possibility that these measures may prove ineffective and ultimately might require some kind of more direct intervention (although I think that is relatively unlikely given the speed with which the regime is disintegrating); and the possibility of the fragmentation of Libya into separate zones of influence. This last prospect is especially raised by the possibility of a country-wide no-fly zone, since in other instances, most notably Iraq, that has proven the case.

What economic measures can and cannot achieve:
Moreover, I've been very straightforward about the fact that economic measures will not, in and of themselves, produce regime change, and that a no-fly zone would have limited effectiveness and not stop atrocities on the ground. However, while these measures carry certain risks and have obvious limitations, they would have certain powerful effects that shouldn't be discounted either. The freezing of assets, for example, would make it more difficult for the Qaddafi regime to continue to pay its people, particularly foreign mercenaries on whom it has by all accounts been heavily relying for the worst of its deeds. It would make life more difficult for the government, which at this stage would certainly be a good thing. It would also send an important symbolic message, and Pres. Obama is to be congratulated for his new executive order and encouraged, indeed, to go further. For sanctions to really bite, it will require the cooperation of countries like Russia and China, and that will be difficult, but may not be impossible. Public indications that the United States is working in this direction would be welcome and heartening. Even though economic sanctions take time to really bite, they would send an important signal to the Libyan government that not only domestically but internationally, the noose is tightening.

What a no-fly zone can accomplish:
A no-fly zone would have an even greater impact. It would reduce the ability of the government to try to extend its influence over the parts of the country it still controls, and make it extremely difficult for it to regain control of the apparently large areas it no longer commands. Most importantly, it would make it impossible to quickly and efficiently ferry in additional mercenaries from other parts of Africa or eastern Europe, and might help bring a quicker end to the conflict. It's true that a no-fly zone could increase the risk of fragmentation, but that risk is already there, and from what we have seen, at least rhetorically, the Libyan opposition isn't secessionist or terribly localized yet, and seems driven by nationalist rhetoric that militates against this kind of fragmentation. The real danger would come from a protracted period of instability in which the regime continued to control Tripoli and various other parts of the country, with other parts falling to local factions, tribes or, conceivably even, warlords. In other words, the danger of fragmentation is probably just as severe without a no-fly zone as with one. It emerges more due to an extended period of conflict than from the inability of the Qaddafi regime to use its air power.

The imperative to avoid ground intervention:
I understand that everyone, undoubtedly including the Libyan opposition and the people of the Arab world, have very serious reservations about any kind of direct foreign intervention on the ground, and I very much share those concerns. An international or Western presence on the ground in Libya could produce terrible downsides, raising again the specter of colonialism and creating a platform for international terrorists such as Al Qaeda or local forces to rally around various different self-interested campaigns of violence under the rubric of fighting foreign occupation. No doubt this is a contingency everyone is eager to avoid. I'd argue that strong measures short of that, including the ones I'm advocating above, would actually make such a prospect less and not more likely, even though once the Responsibility to Protect is invoked, it's logical conclusion might lead in that direction. The important thing is that this conflict not drag on, because that leads to almost all the dystopian scenarios one can paint, from extended massacres and atrocities, to fragmentation, or to the need for a very problematic and undesirable international intervention on the ground. I'm not surprised that nobody serious is talking these terms, and they shouldn't. It's far too early to consider such a measure, and it would to require the emergence of a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions, far in excess of the already dreadful violence we have already seen to even begin to consider such a thing.

Broader US interests in taking a stronger stance:
The point I'm trying to emphasize, however, is that beyond these short-term, narrow practical and strategic considerations there is a broader imperative that needs to be borne in mind. The Arab world is being swept by a series of protests against the status quo, characterized by unaccountable governments that are corrupt and incompetent, leaders that have ruled for many decades and groom their children for succession, and a lack of inclusivity and transparency in governance that is simply unbearable. The United States in particular has a powerful strategic interest in not being perceived as the guardian of the status quo, addicted to a regional order that has become anathema to most of the people of the Middle East. It is very much in the American national interest to place itself, and more importantly be perceived as, on the side of the Arab peoples as they rise up to insist on reform, accountability and inclusivity. The Arab citizenry is finding its voice, and asserting its will, and the United States will have to deal with the outcome. Its ability to determine what happens is extremely limited in most parts of the Arab world, for instance in Libya. But I'd argue that the United States has a strong interest in being a part of the process of reform, in a manner that the people of the region can and will understand.

The need to side with the Arab peoples:
After an initially confused and halting reaction to the Egyptian protests, the Obama administration did get it right and sent a clear message that it was not interested in insisting on the survival of its ally, Pres. Mubarak. Nobody would consider Qaddafi a key American client or even really a friend of the United States, in spite of the fact that the Bush administration did make a deal with it to exchange its special weapons program for a degree of international rehabilitation. Standing on the sidelines and doing nothing for so many days while Libya has burned has simply not been in the American interest in my view. The new executive order is a very good step in the right direction. For understandable reasons, NATO is still saying it's not considering any kind of intervention, such as a no-fly zone, in Libya. But I think that as the conflict continues to deteriorate, and especially if Qaddafi and his regime make good on their threats to “cleanse Libya house by house” and turn Libya into “a burning hell,” economic measures will probably not be sufficient to place our country squarely on the right side of history and on the side of the Arab peoples yearning to be free (it sounds like a cliché, and it is one, but nonetheless it's apt).

A no-fly zone, as we've seen in the past, can be quickly organized and Libya is well-positioned around the whole series of NATO bases from which it could be enforced. It would be best if this were done with the backing of a UN Security Council resolution, but a broad-based international coalition need not be entirely dependent on Russian and Chinese acquiescence. I believe the Arab peoples generally, and most of the people of Libya, would welcome such a move and would see it as a very positive indication of where the United States, which is and insists on remaining the regional superpower in the Middle East, sees its role in the emerging order through which Arab citizens are trying to shake off the despotisms of the past. The political and strategic risks, which I certainly acknowledge, are hardly overwhelming, and the military risks are minimal. There are also undoubted political and strategic concerns, and I've never downplayed them, and I'm not doing that now. But I am suggesting that there are far greater and overriding political and strategic costs to being perceived as doing nothing, to giving the impression of being disinterested, relying solely on lip service, being overly attached to regional stability and the status quo at a time when people are rejecting it in a most heroic manner, and, of course, of hypocrisy.

Such accusations would be unjust and untrue, but they are already surfacing and will only grow over time. The Qaddafi regime will almost certainly not be able to survive its current crisis. Simply put, there's no way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again at this point. The loss of control so much of the country, the outrage of so many of its citizens, the defection of so many military, diplomatic and government officials, and the literally pathological performance and behavior of Qaddafi himself mean this regime has no future. The only questions are how long will it take, how much blood will be spilled, how much chaos will ensue, and what kind of order the endgame will produce. Here I do think the United States and its allies could play a role in hastening the end to the regime, which would minimize the risks of national fragmentation due to extended conflict and the emergence of extremist factions in control of certain parts of the country, both of which could be the consequences of a protracted scenario. This government is going to fall. It strongly behooves the United States to be perceived as having helped to play a positive role in bringing about its demise. Not only will that provide our country a great deal of credit in Libya and in the Arab world at large, especially among the ordinary citizens, it would also maximize the ability of the United States to deal positively with a post-Qaddafi order and to have some degree of influence in what comes next.

More importantly, it would send a clear message to the Arab peoples at large: the United States prefers transitions in which national militaries work with remnants of the old regimes and with opposition groups to create new, more equitable, democratic and transparent systems to replace existing autocracies. That process is underway in Tunisia and Egypt, and apparently is just starting in Bahrain as well. Libya is a strategically important country, but it is not a major ally of the United States. However, other important Arab states that are vulnerable to popular protests against autocracy are key allies, and the United States might find itself dealing with situations even more difficult than the one in Egypt, which resolved itself, thus far, relatively peacefully and in a more or less orderly manner. It's very important that the Arab people understand that the United States isn't willing to stand by idly, especially if they wrongly perceive it to be a reflection of an undue attachment to regional stability and preserving an unacceptable status quo, especially when the citizenry of the country is under unrestrained attack by a rogue government.

US interests in joining and helping manage transition in the Arab world:
There will be, almost certainly, many difficult challenges ahead for the United States and some of its key allies in the future as the wave of Arab reform protests proceeds. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia set the stage for what is happening in Libya, and what is also beginning to gain steam in Yemen and elsewhere. Wise strategic thinking would focus on the medium and long-term rather than the immediate, narrow interests that militate against doing anything, and would seek to maximize the American ability to deftly maneuver in the face of what are likely to be difficult transitions in other Arab states. So, just as Egypt and Tunisia were the precursors of the crisis in Libya, so too will the Libyan experience influence what happens next in other Arab countries. American policy should be clearly focused on maximizing our country's ability to deal effectively with those coming storms. Having been perceived to have played a positive role in helping to secure freedom in Libya, or at least an end to the conflict and the Qaddafi regime, is the best thing we could do at the moment to prepare a sound basis for securing our long-term interests and maintaining good relations not just with the governments, but also with the peoples, of our Arab allies.

?Those who do not love me do not deserve to live.? What argument is left for not acting in Libya?

Well, he finally came right out and said it: “those who do not love me do not deserve to live.” With those words, uttered on Libyan state television today, Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi at least rhetorically outdid all his megalomaniacal and mass murdering predecessors including Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, Stalin and the whole bunch. Anyone who still doubts that this man is ready and willing to visit the utmost bloodshed upon his people simply isn't paying attention. The question is, is he able? The answer is, at this stage at least, quite possibly.

That should fill everyone with enormous anxiety and put paid to the idea that ideas for minimal interventionist efforts such as a no-fly zone are an overreaction, unjustified or would be counterproductive. My initial reaction to such calls a few days ago was caution and skepticism. After Qaddafi's first speech on TV two days ago, I had to change my mind given the ruthlessness and madness that was on full display. Yesterday in Foreign Policy magazine I came out strongly in favor of economic sanctions, freezing assets and indeed a no-fly zone, even though it conceivably might end up necessitating boots on the ground. I'm pretty sure it won't come to that, and I think these other measures will be enough to help push this madman off his perch. Indeed, his regime can't be saved, and it's only a matter of how many people will be killed, and what kind of political, social and human devastation will be left in his wake. And, let there be no doubt, the more chaos and bloodshed he inflicts, the greater the chance of a terrible outcome in Libya, involving national fragmentation, extended chaos, or the rise to power of extremists of one variety or another. The violence he is threatening has every prospect of radicalizing opposition groups and enough Libyans to produce a very gruesome outcome, and not one limited strictly to vengeance against the regime and those associated with it, which of course would be bad enough.

Let's be very clear about what exactly Qaddafi said today. Since a huge percentage, almost certainly an overwhelming majority, of the Libyan people clearly “do not love” him, including large numbers of his former officials, military officers and diplomats, he's basically issuing a death sentence on most Libyans. It's essentially a secular version of takfir, the bizarre and theologically inadmissible practice by the so-called “Salafist-Jihadist” lunatics of pronouncing other Muslims to be apostates and therefore, in their eyes, worthy of death (for this reason, those who call themselves Salafist-Jihadists have frequently been referred to as “takfiris” in the Arab media, in an attempt to distinguish them from less extreme Islamists like most Salafists such as Muslim Brothers who do not engage in the practice). And it has a grisly precedent: towards the end of the civil war in Algeria, as the Islamist opposition became increasingly deranged, both al-Jama'ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha (the Armed Islamic Group) and al-Jamaa'atu l-Salafiyyatu li l-Da'wati wa l-Qitaal (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) — the most extreme of the Algerian radical organizations, realizing they were finally losing the battle against the government, the military and the mainstream of Algerian society — pronounced takfir against the entire Algerian nation that did not join their ranks, not once but twice. And they meant it. These were auto-genocidal sentiments from two of the most radical Al Qaeda-style organizations the Arab world has ever seen. If they had not been small and marginalized by that time, there is no telling how many Algerians they would have massacred, given that attitude. Goodness knows they killed enough as it was, even given their limited means.

Gaddafi has done the same thing, without invoking religion or framing his arguments in a Salafist-Jihadist, pseudo-theological rhetoric. His madness is much more megalomaniacal than it is theocratic-maniacal. It's all personal, and about him: "those who do not love me deserve to die." There's no doubt at all that his regime continues to unravel, but it hasn't lost control yet. There are dire warnings that he still possesses some chemical or biological weapons, although whether he has the means to deliver them or not isn't clear. However, senior defectors from his regime are saying he has these weapons and will not hesitate to use them at the last moment. At the very least, he still seems to command considerable conventional firepower, and doesn't appear in the least bit hesitant to unleash it. Certainly he's acting very much in a Samson-mentality, talking and acting as if he were perfectly content to bring the entire edifice of the Libyan nation down around him if he has to go. Indeed, he's starting to exhibit the same attitude of contempt towards his own people that Hitler reportedly expressed in the final days in his bunker as the Soviet military bore down on Berlin: that his people had let him down, that they therefore didn't deserve to live, and that since he was about to lose power it was only right and just that they perish in large numbers.

I'm a very reluctant supporter of humanitarian international intervention in Libya. But I think it's almost impossible to believe that major international efforts like freezing assets, economic sanctions, travel bans, weapons sale bans and, indeed, a no-fly zone are not urgently required here. In fact, for those who are concerned about the possibility of the international community being forced to intervene on the ground, I'd say the quickest possible implementation of those measures is the best bet of avoiding two very bad scenarios: one, the need to intervene physically to prevent extremely widespread atrocities or possibly even genocide; or two, having to live with the fact that as in Rwanda, the international community had every warning about what was happening and about to happen, and stood by and did virtually nothing. Is there anyone who doesn't feel shame about the global lack of response to the genocide in Rwanda? Do we really want to go through that again in Libya?

I don't think I'm overstating the case here at all. My strong suspicion is of the regime is on its last legs, and that it's quite unlikely that any sort of direct intervention in Libya would be required to finish it off. But I do think these other measures, short of ground actions, while they carry the risks I've outlined in my last blog posting and also in my Foreign Policy article, these are greatly outweighed by the urgent need to take action and the even more serious consequences of failing to do so, not only for the people of Libya, but for the stability of the region and for Western interests in the long run. I'm not sure how intervention on the ground would be regarded in Libya (I'm sure at the moment there is no appetite for any such thing, because it hasn't come close to requiring that… yet), or in the rest of the Arab world. The specter of colonialism cannot be underestimated. However the imposition of a no-fly zone would, I strongly believe, not be regarded by most Arabs and certainly not by most Libyans as an unwarranted Western intrusion, a neocolonial action, or abusive meddling. I think the anxiety for the future of the people of Libya is sufficient to offset any mistrust of the West at this stage, and actually I think it would be regarded as a noble and most welcome form of intervention.

The situation is quite simple: we have a crazed and extremely ruthless dictator desperately clinging on to power, still in possession of considerable armed forces and foreign mercenaries, threatening to massacre his people and declaring that those who do not love him deserve to die. Under such circumstances it seems to me that economic measures and a country-wide no-fly zone are the very least that can be done, and after his speech today, every day that passes without them, assuming his regime doesn't fall quickly, will be an added embarrassment to an international community that has declared that it has a Responsibility to Protect. If the Libyans right now don't need protection from an armed, crazed and homicidal dictator who is openly and on television threatening the overwhelming majority of them with death, I can't imagine who would.


There is now some dispute over whether Qaddafi said "those who do not love me do not deserve to live" or "if people do not love me, I do not deserve to live." Al Arabiya reports the later here. But first-rate tweeters reporter Muna Shikaki quoted him as "Qaddafi: 'those who don't like me don't deserve to live'" and Sultan Al Qassemi wrote "Gaddafi now in TV 'I'm in central Tripoli now. The people who don't love me don't deserve to live.'" Those are two pretty good sources, in my view. Either way, the thrust of the arguments remain unchanged. At UN today, the Libyan ambassador finally abandoned Qaddafi after sticking by him till now in an open dispute with his deputy. With emotions and tears flowing, Amb. Shalqam embraced Sec. Gen. Ban and asked the UN to "save Libya, we want quick action, save Libya." He rightly said Qaddafi's message to Libyans was if i cannot rule you, "I will kill you." I think that says it all. And there is no dispute that Qaddafi today threatened to turn Libya into "a burning hell."


My tweep @abuhatem says:

Yeah I read it. Al-Arabiyah is wrong. They tend to get a lot of things wrong. You, Munashik, and Sultan are all correct. 100%

Act. Now. The world must do more than watch the Libyan bloodletting.

The unfolding catastrophe in Libya has forced the world to once again grapple with the conundrum of international humanitarian intervention. However, recent efforts at intervention — notably the humiliating episode in Somalia and the terrible failure to act in Rwanda — have revealed both the risks of action and the costs of inaction.

Muammar al-Qaddafi’s bloodcurdling speech on Feb. 22 should force even skeptics of international intervention to think twice. In his defiant remarks, the Libyan dictator vowed to “cleanse Libya house by house” in order to stay in power. Qaddafi also insisted that he has not begun to crack down in earnest — despite sketchy reports that his effort to quell the protests has already left hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed people dead — and approvingly cited other uses of state security forces to quell unrest, such as the Chinese assault on Tiananmen Square and the U.S. actions in Waco and Fallujah.

Neither the United States nor the international community should be under any illusions about the extraordinary costs of humanitarian intervention. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these difficulties are outweighed by the risks of standing by and watching events unfold without taking any meaningful action.

Let’s start with the arguments against a full-throated intervention: There is little the United States can do on its own, and the scope of any potential engagement will have to be based on a broad-based international consensus. Even basic options, such as economic sanctions and the freezing of regime assets, will require support from countries such as Russia and China to have an effect. But these economic measures take time to make their impact felt, and they will certainly not produce, and probably won’t seriously accelerate, regime change. Nor will they come quickly enough to stop Qaddafi’s bloodletting of his own population.

Dissident Libyan diplomats, including the former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, have called for the more ambitious proposal of establishing a no-fly zone throughout the country. This would prevent the Qaddafi regime from continuing its use of warplanes and helicopters against the protesters. It might also inhibit the regime’s ability to ferry in foreign mercenaries, on whom it appears to be relying in the face of growing military defections. And, of course, it would undermine the regime’s ability to control the country at large.

Senior U.S. and NATO officials have so far not expressed any serious interest in becoming embroiled in the crisis in Libya, though the White House has refused to definitively take any option off the table. There are legitimate concerns about the long-term impact and short-term efficacy of aggressive intervention. Establishing a no-fly zone might place Americans and other Westerners still in Libya at risk, and compromise important Western economic interests. It could provide “evidence” for regime accusations that the rebellion is essentially an American plot, undermining the opposition movement in some people’s eyes. Moreover, the international community may also feel that it simply lacks sufficient information about the forces at work within Libya to be entirely certain about what kind of outcome even a limited no-fly zone intervention would be promoting.

Even more ominously, if the regime holds on to power in Tripoli and some other regions for an extended period of time, a no-fly zone might set the stage for the long-term fragmentation of the country by consolidating the rule of various factions, including the government, in different parts of the country. If Libya is fractured between local groups, it may be very difficult to reunite the country — possibly encouraging the development of a Somalia-style failed state in a strategic area of North Africa. The most significant concern, however, must be that a no-fly zone will simply be ineffective in preventing the escalation of the already enormous humanitarian crisis. As Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries and loyal military units has shown, air power is not necessary to commit atrocities on the ground, especially against unarmed or lightly armed demonstrators.

And then there’s the issue of escalation: Once the United States or the international community commits to protecting the Libyan people from their own government, it could prove very difficult to justify persisting with a no-fly zone policy when only intervention on the ground would stop the carnage. The example of the establishment of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq following the Gulf War — which did nothing, of course, to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying his troops to crush the incipient revolt — still looms large as a shameful incident in U.S. policy. Fear of being sucked into the use of ground forces — with far greater potential blowback, internal and international opposition, and unintended consequences — is also undoubtedly driving international caution.

But U.S. policymakers must not only consider the risks of intervention — they, and the rest of the international community, also need to contemplate the grave risks of doing nothing. The United States and its allies are now forced to deal with an emerging new order in the Middle East; it is squarely in their interest to place themselves on the side of popular demands for reform, democratization, and the removal of unaccountable leaders who have held power for decades. It’s not too late for the United States to be perceived as a positive force for change rather than a guardian of the old regional order, but standing idle while Libya burns would send the wrong message to the people of the region. Forging a broad international consensus for strong actions on Libya would be the wisest political and strategic course for the United States.

Symbolic actions such as freezing assets and economic sanctions are already overdue. A no-fly zone, in spite of its obvious limitations, should be organized as quickly as possible. Its creation will imply a commitment to protect the Libyan people from serious, sustained mass atrocities, and if it comes to that, the international community should be prepared to live up to its responsibilities — in spite of the present risks. The dangers of escalation shouldn’t be overblown: The regime’s unpopularity, its loss of control of much of the country and growing military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic defections suggest that Western boots on the ground could well be unnecessary.

The international community not only has solid practical reasons to intervene in Libya — it has a legal obligation. The invocation of the principle of the “responsibility to protect,” which was developed post-Rwanda and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in 2006, may become unavoidable if the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. The doctrine commits the international community to taking timely and decisive action to stop mass atrocities when states are either committing, or unable to stop, them. Can anyone seriously doubt that this is becoming increasingly applicable to Libya?

International action in Libya also provides the United States and its allies with an opportunity to make an important and positive contribution to the upheaval currently under way across the Middle East. The widespread alarm in the Arab world about the Qaddafi regime’s brutal tactics against the Libyan people means that aggressive international action would almost certainly be welcomed by the Arab public. Unlike other Western interventions in the region, humanitarian action in Libya would place the United States and the West on the side of the aspirations of millions of ordinary Arabs — and on the right side of history and the wave of democratization sweeping the region.

Is international intervention in Libya imminent and/or justified?

Col. Qaddafii's speech on Libyan state TV this evening set a new low not only for him and other beleaguered Arab leaders, but internationally and historically as well. It was one for the ages. Qaddafi rambled and howled, cooed and bellowed, pleaded and, above all, threatened. Surely the most apt adjective to describe the speech is bloodcurdling. Qaddafi essentially threatened to unleash entirely new waves and levels of violence against his own people, suggesting that he has not yet even given the order to fire, but making it clear that he is willing to stop at nothing to keep hold of power if it comes to that. To justify his shameless ruthlessness, he approvingly cited other uses of force by states around the world, particularly permanent members of the Security Council, including US actions in Waco and Falluja, among others, Russian actions against the rebellious Duma, the Chinese military assaults on protesters in Tiananmen Square and so forth. The main point of his address seemed to be to strike fear in the hearts of any Libyan who happened to be listening to him and imply that the blood hasn't yet begun to flow in earnest.

Of course the speech was not only ruthless, but utterly deranged. We're used to that from Qaddafi, but this latest performance took his mania to a whole new level. He appeared unusually disoriented and rambling, at one point pausing to read out “transgressions” worthy of the death penalty under Libyan law. These seem to cover virtually everything other than obsequious fawning before him. At the same time, he produced familiar rhetoric about being a humble man with virtually no possessions and no real ambitions: a simple servant of the nation. In the same breath, he was as megalomaniacal as possible, claiming to be the soul of the nation and “not a normal person” (hardly a revelation, although I doubt most listeners took it in the way he meant.) Moments later, he accused the demonstrators of being both hardened, ultrareligious, fundamentalist "followers of bin Laden and Zawahiri" and of also being shiftless teenage drug addicts. Neither are true, but please, pick one. He repeatedly implied that because of the protests Libya was about to be simultaneously attacked by Al Qaeda AND the United States (as if they work hand in glove), and went so far as to dig up the name of Zarqawi, a menacing figure no one has mentioned for many, many years. It was all part of an incoherent and kitchen-sink parade of horribles and monsters designed to strike terror into the hearts of the listeners. Underneath it all it was clear that the biggest monster in this imaginary evil pantheon is Qaddafi himself, and he made no bones about his willingness to spill blood and burn down his own society.

In terms of Libyan domestic politics, other than promising a bloodbath if the rebellion continues, Qaddafi appealed to tribal leaders in the most paternalistic terms, insisting that he has done a tremendous amount for them and demanding their continued support. Other than those elements of the regime and the military which remain loyal to him for whatever reason, and of course the foreign mercenaries he pays, his only bet is that some kind of deep, local, tribal politics will somehow provide him with a constituency that survives the uprising and his own outrageous conduct. This seems unlikely, but few observers outside of Libya are well informed enough about these deep local politics to be certain. As I've been saying since Saturday morning, it seems to be only a matter of time before the Gaddafi regime falls, and the main question is how many people will be killed in the process and what the endgame will throw up in its place.

Obviously the first impulse of any reasonable person under such circumstances is to ask how this dreadful situation can be most quickly resolved and with the minimum of bloodshed. My initial reaction to calls for foreign intervention, including a no-fly zone, was at least ambivalent and skeptical. Following his speech today, which was mainly a litany of overt threats against the population at large, both the international community and sober observers will have to think twice about maintaining any kind of hands-off attitude and simply leaving it up to the Libyans themselves (which obviously is a preferable scenario, all things being equal.) Clearly there is a strong case to be made for freezing regime assets, wide-ranging economic sanctions and even no-fly zones. A robust international response to not only the violence of the past few days but also the threat of much wider violence from Gaddafi is undoubtedly called for.

The problem is that economic measures will take a good deal of time to have any real effect, let alone lead to regime change, while the crisis is urgent and, if it is taken seriously as a moral and political (and maybe even strategic) crisis, really cannot wait for the grinding attrition which such measures can actually inflict. No-fly zones can, and probably should, be quickly imposed, and it would probably fall to NATO to do that, presumably with UN Security Council backing. However, as with economic sanctions, no-fly zones will only attenuate the degree of violence that the regime can visit upon its people. In few instances have governments needed to resort to air power in order to conduct atrocities and massacres, especially if it is a matter of armed forces confronting unarmed or lightly armed populations. So in the end these measures may well not be sufficient, which is probably one of the main reasons it is taking the international community so long to decide whether they want to undertake them or not. No-fly zones, it should be added, carry with them the prospect of dividing countries into irreconcilable or ungovernable antonymous or even independent zones, and setting the stage for future conflicts on that basis as well, by allowing regional forces to establish the prerogatives of governance for an extended time in a given area that may be difficult to reverse.

Once international intervention to protect the Libyan people from the regime is embraced as a principle and a strategy by the international community, there is every reason to suspect it won't and can't end with no fly zones. If world powers, particularly the West, NATO and the United States, make a point of intervening on behalf of the Libyan people and economic sanctions prove effectively meaningless and no-fly zones only slightly curb the violence, and especially if greater atrocities and massacres become widespread, a direct intervention by ground forces will become increasingly hard to avoid. The point is that in a case like this largely symbolic measures like economic sanctions and no-fly zones ultimately won't cut it if the regime does not fall under the weight of its own contradictions and if it continues to increase the use of brute force against essentially unarmed civilian populations.

The United States government has been very cautious in its approach to the crisis in Libya, disappointing a great many people in the process. President Barack Obama has been virtually silent on the issue, and both he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have spoken of Libya mostly in the same breath with other Arab states subjected to protest movements. One reason is that the United States does not have much leverage with or in Libya, and presumably does not have particularly good or reliable information either. Another is the fear that strong support from the United States for the protesters might serve to discredit the opposition in the eyes of some Libyans and other Arabs who are used to thinking of the Americans as the enemy. In addition, there are American and other Western economic interests at stake. And finally, I do think there is a reticence to be sucked into an interventionist stance in Libya given that the logic of such a policy might not allow itself to be restricted to ineffective economic measures and no-fly zones. Such concerns certainly explain the Obama administration's caution on the subject thus far.

But the United States risks being perceived as disinterested in Libya, hypocritical or too attached to the deal that was struck by the Bush administration with the Qaddafi regime over its special weapons program in exchange for international rehabilitation. I don't think this is an accurate reflection of Obama administration attitudes, but such accusations have already surfaced and are likely to gain momentum over time. The UN Security Council meeting this afternoon will reveal much about how far the international community is willing to go. The United States, whatever it wants to do at this stage, will also perforce have to take into consideration attitudes of states like Russia and China that may have very serious reservations about external intervention in Libyan affairs. The Obama administration so far hasn't given any indication of being interested in unilaterally imposing sanctions or no-fly zones without this kind of international backing, assuming it's willing to consider these steps at all. If the US does opt for intervention, it will almost certainly have to be with the backing of a strong international coalition and it is extremely unlikely to act alone or in the face of strong Chinese, Russian or other opposition.

For the past couple of decades in cases such as Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere, the international community and the West in particular have been caught between a new rhetoric of international liberal and humanitarian interventionism on the one hand versus the principle of non-interference and rejecting the legacy of colonialism on the other. The Libyan case is quickly becoming the latest conundrum over whether Western interventions (because it is going to have to be Western, I'm afraid) can legitimately take the form of liberal, humanitarian interventions consistent with an enlightened approach to international law and legitimacy or whether they will also be partly, at heart, or inevitably degenerate into new expressions of old-fashioned colonialism or imperialism.

Without question the Tunisian and Egyptian models, in which popular protests were able to unseat hated dictators and kick off a process of reform that has a very realistic fighting chance of producing reasonably democratic systems, is far preferable to most people in the Middle East and around the world than the Iraq model in which American invasion and occupation, not to mention protracted civil conflict, set the stage for the possible emergence of a stable democracy. The problem is that the Libyan case probably looks a lot more like what Iraqis would have encountered from Saddam Hussein if they had risen up in this manner, and it's very difficult to imagine the Iraqi system under Saddam allowing a "velvet revolution" to succeed or his army throwing him out in a soft coup as happened to Ben Ali and Mubarak. And, of course, direct Western intervention on the ground opens space for various forms of extremists, including Salafist-Jihadists of the Al Qaeda variety, to open new fronts against both Western interests and mainstream Arab societies, as happened in Iraq, and for civil conflict driven by communal or power politics to proceed under the guise of combating foreign occupations.

So the problem of international intervention is not nearly as simple as some people are making it out to be because the steps that are being proposed may well prove ineffective and require stronger measures requiring a much more serious committment, and more blowback, internal and external opposition and unintended consequences. On the other hand, following the demonstrated ruthlessness of Qaddafi and, especially, his blatant threats in his speech today of greatly escalated violence, atrocities and massacres and his approving invocation of various dreadful incidents around the world as a model for how to deal with rebellion and insurrection, doing nothing may be even less attractive or defensible than starting to seriously do something on an international basis in spite of the considerable risks.

Secularism is what the Arab world needs

The wave of anti-government protests sweeping through the Arab world, which has already toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, raises very serious questions about religion and politics in the Middle East, and reinforces the need for Arab secularism.

The most fascinating thing about the largest and most important of the protests, in Egypt and Tunisia, is that the animating spirit that brought millions of ordinary Arab citizens out into the streets was not religion or any version of religious politics, but nationalism and a broad-based social consciousness. The country-specific and broader Arab nationalist sentiments that brought such huge crowds together had long been considered dead, or at least moribund, by many observers. Had one predicted the outpouring of anti-government anger across the region six or eight months ago, most observers would have anticipated an Islamist ideological tinge to the revolts.

The governments, of course, have all tried to blame the uprisings on Islamist plots (as well as that old stand-by “foreign meddling”), but the symbolism and rhetoric behind the protest movements have disproved these allegations irrefutably. In Tunisia, one of the most powerful chants was “Tunis huwa al-hal” (Tunisia is the answer), a clear-cut retort to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam huwa al-hal” (Islam is the answer). In Egypt, a striking feature of the protests was not only its secular but also ecumenical character, with Muslims and Christians joining and protecting each other during prayer, and the devout mingling comfortably with the skeptical.

That Egyptians came together across these potential or presumed dividing lines was a clear recognition that in order for the society to be united, in this case against the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, it had no choice but to push religious identity into the background. In other words, the diversity of Egyptian society meant that the Islamist approach, ideology and symbolic repertoire would have been more of an obstacle to than a vehicle of success against the regime.

It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and best organized opposition party in Egypt, and that Islamists are the key opposition parties in most Arab states. It’s true that they participated, in some cases significantly, in the protest movements, and that they are no doubt counting on being primary beneficiaries of an opening up of Arab political space, especially through elections. The Egyptian Brotherhood, for example, was wise not to overplay its hand by thrusting itself and its ideology into the forefront of a movement for which it was not responsible and which gained its power by bringing a huge number of people together across religious and other divides.

The Islamist message is, by definition, divisive. By staying in the background its adherents have implicitly recognized that it has deep limitations when the entire society needs to be mobilized – in this case for purposes of overthrowing the government. That means the same limitations apply any time an Arab society needs to be successfully mobilized, although this obvious point will probably remain largely unarticulated. So while Islamists may be looking forward to trying to exploit new Arab political openness, they must have noted with dismay that it was not their ideology but a secular and ecumenical nationalism that animated the most important of the Arab revolts.

The Bahraini case also demonstrates the dangers of Arab sectarianism and the need to move quickly toward a secular order in which the state is neutral on matters of religion, and religious constituencies are treated equally by the government. In the kingdom, a ruling Sunni minority royal family and elite are facing what they, probably correctly, perceive as the latest round of efforts by the Shia majority to confront its marginalization and disenfranchisement.

In Egypt, the secular and ecumenical nature of the protests was a major factor in its size, power and success, whereas in Bahrain sectarian divisions are at the heart of the instability of the government and the anger of the disempowered majority.

All societies are heterogeneous, and therefore only a secular approach involving government neutrality on religious matters can have any chance of producing fairness and equality. Most Arab societies are strikingly heterogeneous – in many cases a mosaic of sectarian, cultural, ethnic and other diversity. Only secular governance can genuinely express the legitimate rights of a majority while successfully protecting the rights of minorities and individual citizens.

Even though they have not been at the forefront of the most important Arab protest movements, Islamists are no doubt waiting on the sidelines, hoping and preparing to benefit from new political space. But the new Arab order, especially since it is being born in such a strikingly secular and ecumenical spirit – and if it is to have any hope of providing democracy, good governance, equity and human rights – cannot be defined by religious politics. As the Iranian experience so bitterly shows, such a definition would only set the stage for more oppression, division and civil conflict down the road.

Is Libya the nightmare version of the dream that began in Tunis and Cairo?

Last Saturday morning I blogged that I thought that the epicenter of the Arab revolt was now in Libya and that it was the place to watch in the immediate term, and that Yemen probably would be the most volatile and significant in the medium term. This was as opposed to the obsessive and misguided focus on Bahrain that was largely the consequence of the physical presence of international media in that relatively open society and a lack of understanding about the differences between the rather unique political mix in the "Island Kingdom" and the generalized pattern in the broader Arab world. Everything that has happened since then has tended to confirm this view, and reports coming out of Libya today suggests that the situation has become downright abominable. The Gaddafi regime, facing a wave of unprecedented protests throughout the country now including the capital of Tripoli and a pattern of diplomatic and military defections, has unleashed the full force of the Libyan military and its mercenaries on significant segments of the population. Reports suggest that extraordinary atrocities have taken place and that up to 600 people have been killed, although this may be a very lowball estimate. Information is very difficult to come by, and often is unconfirmed and/or not reliable.

Even more ominously, the situation appears to be deteriorating. There are strong suggestions that the Libyan Air Force has been deployed against protesters and rebellious areas, and that the largest city that appears to have fallen into the hands of the opposition, Benghazi, may face a sustained evening of aerial bombardment tonight with potentially unimaginable consequences. The Arab League has remained largely silent, not knowing quite what to say. Most of the international community has condemned the violence, but Italy, the former colonial master in Libya, has actually supported the Gaddafi regime with Berlusconi's Foreign Minister warning about an “Islamic emirate” just to the south of Europe and similar balderdash.

Those calling for international intervention may unfortunately be wasting their breath: no party has the inclination, the means or the ability to launch a direct military intervention in Libya under the present circumstances. It's not going to happen for the foreseeable future. This could quickly change, but for now, the Libyan drama will play out entirely, or almost entirely, based on local forces. The idea of a "no-fly zone," being floated by some dissident Libyan diplomats and others, is not completely out of the question, although who would enforce it remains undefined, and at any rate even if any international forces wanted to do this, it would take some time to organize and would not prevent atrocities on the ground. It seems virtually certain that at the end of the day, when the dust settles and no matter how much blood is spilled, the Gaddafi regime will not survive its outrageous behavior. It's a matter of how many days it takes and how many lives are taken, but at least this aspect of the outcome now seems completely unavoidable.

What we are witnessing, then, is a nightmare version of the dream that began in Tunis and Cairo. The Tunisian and Egyptian peoples were able to leave their militaries with virtually no choice but to hand hated dictators one-way tickets out of town. In both cases, when push came to shove, the Army preferred to intervene to restore order and salvage what it could of the national security state rather than confront the protesters and initiate a bloodbath. Whether or not these experiments end up in full-blown democracy or long-lasting major reforms remains to be seen, but the extraordinary displays of “people power” managed to remove the despised symbols of oppression and unseat powerful dictators. In both cases, the protests were almost entirely nonviolent and while police and thugs initially brutalized demonstrators, the militaries intervened to stop that and refused to be drawn into a direct confrontation with unarmed people. Especially after the success of the Egyptian uprising, it was virtually inevitable that the model would be followed in other parts of the Arab world, and quickly. Libya was always a prime candidate, having a sclerotic dictatorship that began in the 1960s and being sandwiched geographically directly between Tunisia and Egypt. So it's not surprising that the next phase of the new Arab uprising/awakening, or whatever it proves to be, would be in Libya.

Unfortunately, it's also not surprising that what Libya is providing is a dystopian version of the euphoric, utopian "velvet revolutions" in Egypt and Tunisia, since this military, or at least significant parts of it, appears to have no compunction in unleashing its firepower on unarmed demonstrators. There is a degree of unscrupulousness and recklessness at work in the Gaddafi regime's response that was simply missing in Tunisia and Egypt and only briefly glimpsed, and in a very limited manner, in Bahrain. But this is what it looks like when the state won't restrain itself and at least some key elements of the military, mercenaries or otherwise, will take orders to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.

What effect this will have on future potential Arab uprisings against autocratic regimes very much remains to be seen, but it will be another major turning point. Assuming that Gadhafi is overthrown, as seems inevitable, there are several obvious possible ramifications to a very bloody, as opposed to velvet, Arab revolution. First it's possible to suggest that if the Libyans can go through what they seem to be willing to endure and shake off their dictatorship in spite of the extreme violence, Arabs generally will have lost their fear of brute force. Certainly the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples were willing to face down the prospect, but the Libyans are currently suffering on the rack in actuality rather than tempting fate. It could serve as an inspiration to those who might have to face much more draconian dictatorships than those in Tunis and Cairo. But it could also be an object lesson about the costs involved, especially since the degree of carnage has yet to be fully realized. It's one thing to enter into a rebellion expecting a scenario more or less analogous to the Tunisian or Egyptian models. It's quite another to have watched what has otherwise been potential brutality actually play itself out like this, and then volunteer for a repetition in your own country. So it's possible Gaddafi's brutality might have as much of an intimidating as an encouraging effect on other Arab populations.

This could particularly be the case if the outcome is long and drawn out, and above all if it is chaotic, uncertain or yields some kind of extremist post-Gaddafi regime. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were gratifyingly secular and ecumenical, and clearly reflected the desire on the part of much of the population, especially the educated, under-employed, urban middle, lower-middle and working classes for democracy and good governance. They were strikingly non-Islamist in their character and reflected a sudden and unexpected resurgence of Arab and local nationalism and an amazingly refined sense of social consciousness. Both of these cultural phenomena — nationalism that transcends ideology and religious and sectarian identity, and a refined social consciousness — had been considered if not dead then at least moribund in the Arab world by most observers. It's extremely heartening to see that these were the animating impulses that were able to bring millions of Egyptians and Tunisians onto the streets, and not narrow-minded, obscurantist religious ideology.

One of the most severe long-term political dangers arising from the kind of brutality currently being visited upon the Libyan people is that it could have a severely radicalizing effect on the opposition and throw up a post-Gaddafi era dominated by extremists rather than reformers. Extreme violence has a historical tendency to radicalize movements in an extremely nasty way and to set the stage for gruesome replacements to grizzly regimes. Extreme American bombardment in Cambodia undoubtedly help to transform the Khmer Rouge into the monstrous regime it proved to be once it seized power. In Algeria, when the military canceled elections in the early 1990s for fear of an Islamist takeover through the ballot box and put FIS members and supporters in concentration camps in the Sahara desert, it set in motion a process of radicalization that ended up with the opposition being characterized by the most extreme version of Salafist-Jihadist mania yet seen anywhere in the Arab world. I'm not predicting that this will be the outcome of what is, without question, a very heroic uprising by the Libyan people, but rather noting that much of the hope for serious, positive reform in Egypt and Tunisia stems from the fact that the military and parts of the ruling elite refused to confront the demonstrators violently and, in the final analysis, were ready to jettison hated dictators and elements of the regime that were just not acceptable to the general public. A period of confrontation gave way to at least some degree of conciliation and compromise, which in both those cases is no doubt still a work in progress. My point is that the kind of brutality being unleashed in Libya makes such conciliation and compromise, and purposive work between elements of the military, remnants of the old regime and opposition groups towards reform, far more difficult. It could, if it goes badly wrong, throw up either a chaotic or deeply oppressive outcome, which would then have its own potential negative influence on the unfolding Arab reform protest movement.

Islamists are beginning to come out of the woodwork after having almost no role in Tunisia and being both marginalized by the protesters and also deliberately holding back in Egypt. Most notably, Yusuf Qaradawi, the elderly Egyptian Salafist who is a client of the Qatari government and a main feature on Al Jazeera Arabic, has been steadily attempting to insert himself into the reform movement limelight on a regional basis. On February 18, Qaradawi gave a speech on the evolution of post-Mubarak Egyptian politics that was not particularly subtle about the direction in which he wants the country to go. Indeed, he went further than his fellow Muslim Brothers based in Egypt ever have, since the revolt at least, in implying that there should be a theocratic element to the country's future. And today, Qaradawi had a remarkable and emotional performance on Al Jazeera Arabic in which he issued a formal fatwa calling for the death of Gaddafi. He said that any soldier or other person who could pull the trigger and end Gaddafi's life should do so immediately. The response of Al Jazeera's anchor at the end of this allegedly religious diatribe was “amen.” I'd agree that any Libyan at this stage who wanted to try to end the conflict by killing the dictator could plausibly claim to be acting in self-defense, given the number of people who've been killed by the regime. But obviously Qaradawi's extraordinary comments are political, not religious, as usual. And it's clearly another effort by the leading Islamist of the Arab world to slowly and methodically usurp the momentum of the Arab uprisings and turn it towards the ends of the Muslim Brothers and similar Salafist forces.

Whether or not anyone will really listen to Qaradawi, or whether, if they do, such efforts will actually succeed in shifting momentum away from the secular, ecumenical character of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests and finally gain some traction for an Islamist turn in the Arab uprisings very much remains to be seen. The fact is that it was nationalism and social consciousness, not Islamism, that brought millions of Arabs out onto the streets, and it may well be the animating force in Libya and elsewhere as the movements progress. As I noted over the weekend, Bahrain is a different case, and in fact does reflect sectarian tensions, although not necessarily Islamist politics as such. If the Arab uprisings and protest movements are to lay the groundwork for a better future, it's essential that notwithstanding brutal repression as being carried out by the Gaddafi regime in Libya, shameless opportunism as being conducted by Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, or sectarian tensions as evident in Bahrain, the visions for the future remain nationalist, secular and ecumenical. The purity of that vision is under serious threat from numerous quarters, but there's every reason at this stage to remain optimistic that it can nonetheless persevere. Such purity is not optional. It is essential.

Is the drama in Manama a sideshow? Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and the Arab uprisings.

In recent days most international and even regional attention has been focused on the outpouring of unrest in Bahrain and the government's extremely violent response that left perhaps a dozen people dead and many more wounded. News media, particularly television, are driven by what is readily available, and, just like in Egypt beforehand, Bahrain immediately saw a huge influx of Western and regional journalists parachuting in to cover what they figured would be the Next Big Story. And, no doubt, the events were dramatic, disturbing and very newsworthy. However, they've been widely misunderstood as the next phase in the generalized Arab revolt against tyrannical rulers that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and now other states in the region. Compelling though the drama in Manama has been, the real action, so to speak, in the unfolding transformation of the Arab world is actually elsewhere, most notably in Libya and most ominously in Yemen.

Context is everything. The uprising in Bahrain is less of a direct response to the events in Tunisia and Egypt than it is essentially a replay of earlier, less dramatic but also very intense and in many ways quite similar, uprisings against the rule of the Al-Khalifa royal family. Like the earlier Bahraini protest movements, the new outpouring has become very sectarian, in spite of many protestations to the contrary, and largely reflects extreme Shiite dissatisfaction at marginalization and disenfranchisement. Unlike the other Gulf states, even those with significant Shiite populations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Bahrain has a substantial Shiite majority but a royal family and ruling elite that is largely Sunni and very conscious of the sectarian differences. Obviously there are lots Bahraini Sunnis with serious grievances against the government as well, including liberals and, much more powerfully, Islamists. However, the principal faultline in the country has been and remains a Sunni-Shiite divide separating the royal family and most of the country's elite from the majority Shiite population.

A couple of years ago the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain celebrated its 10th anniversary (it is, by the way, the oldest American studies center in the Arab world, a grim testament to the state of Arab higher education), and they invited me to be their keynote speaker at their anniversary celebration. During my trip to the country I was struck by not simply the obvious sectarian tensions that were evident right away, but also the striking cultural divide between that part of Bahraini society, including the government and most of the ruling elite, which is very definitely Arab and that part, including a very significant chunk of the Shiite population, which seems to be culturally, not to mention religiously, much more attuned to Iranian orientations. It hit me as early as the immigration desk in the airport upon entry to the country, in which I noted a strong Farsi pronunciation and cadence to some of the officers' otherwise flawless local Arabic. I immediately began to look for opportunities to ask about this striking social feature, but it clearly needed to be done gingerly and with some discretion. I quickly learned just how gingerly it needed to be approached, but I did take the opportunity later on in my brief stay to travel around the northern part of the country a bit and I was struck by the culture and aesthetics of many of the Shiite towns and areas I passed through, which were not only Shiite but did not seem to reflect Arab Shiite culture such as one might find in southern Iraq or southern Lebanon as much as they did Persian culture.

I wasn't surprised by this, of course, but it was still striking. Some of the aftermath of the sectarian rioting of the mid-1990s was still evident in and around some of these Shiite areas, although I found people very reticent to discuss those events. This fault-line has a very deep history, in both recent and more distant Bahraini history. Following the Iranian revolution, after all, Shiite Islamists in Bahrain tried to replicate Khomeini's accomplishment and establish a similar system in that country. In 1956, during British rule, the royal family was briefly driven out of Manama by such sectarian tensions to the village of Refae Al Gharbi, reportedly attended only by Sunni servants and followers. It would be very nice to think that the present uprising was a unified and principled rebellion against an autocratic government, but I think the reality clearly is that it's largely yet another expression of these deeply rooted and ongoing sectarian tensions. In other words, while the Bahraini opposition may have been inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, I do not see this latest unrest in the island as primarily an extension of the logic of those rebellions but more a replay of earlier events, particularly the unrest of the 1990s.

What this implies, of course, is that the focus by international attention and media coverage on Bahrain as the next stage in a generalized Arab revolt against autocrats has probably been misguided. Bahrain is a unique case, as the history of sectarian tensions and repeated uprisings against what is, after all, a religiously, and in some senses culturally, minority government demonstrates. There isn't any similar history of deep sectarian and even ethnic tensions leading to repeated uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Jordan. Yemen has had its share of unrest and even civil war, but again, with a very different character than the Bahraini experience. So while I wouldn't argue that the unrest in Bahrain is disconnected from the wave of protests stemming from the Tunisian and Egyptian examples, I would argue that it is largely a manifestation of other dynamics. It could be observed that every Arab state has its own logic and its own unique set of circumstances that define its political evolution. But it's much easier to see a direct connection between Tunisia and Egypt on the one hand and anti-government protests in Libya, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere than this latest manifestation of the ongoing and unresolved tension between the rulers and the ruled in Bahrain that is, sad to say but in truth, largely sectarian.

There is another important distinction between the dynamics in Bahrain and that in other protest-wracked Arab states, which is that neither side can really hope to “win” in that country, which means that a compromise is virtually inevitable no matter how much blood is spilled. The government of Bahrain has a very strong hand to play, unlike many of the other Arab governments affected by anti-government protests. The Bahraini royal family enjoys significant support from the local Sunni population, even if they have simmering grievances against the autocracy, in the face of what is perceived as a largely Shiite uprising. Very significantly it also enjoys strong regional support, particularly from its nervous fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members, and international support from the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in that country as the centerpiece of US naval power in the Persian Gulf. It also clearly has a military, largely made up of foreign mercenaries, that has demonstrated not only a willingness but an excessive eagerness to use deadly violence against unarmed protesters. The baneful legacy of Ian Henderson — a British mercenary and thug, and veteran of the dirty war against the Mau-Mau in Kenya, who ran Bahrain's state security services for some 30 years until he was shunted aside following the unrest in the 1990s — has been on full display. Henderson was known for his embrace of torture as a primary security tactic and has been reported by numerous victims to have participated in beatings and other abuses personally, in both Kenya and Bahrain. The security culture he helped establish in the country over many decades sadly seems alive and well given the casual brutality of the largely mercenary armed forces towards the demonstrators.

On the other hand, violence alone cannot restore order and will eventually lead to greater levels of chaos and possibly worse. The country could be wracked by protests and organized opposition for quite a while pitting a sizable majority against minority rulers, which is an untenable situation. Worse, there is always the possibility, if violence by the government forces continues unchecked, that somehow opposition groups, particularly Shiite ones, will begin to arm themselves in response. Certainly with the presence of the Fifth Fleet, it would not be easy for Iran or other outside forces to arm anyone in Bahrain who wishes to fight fire with fire, but history demonstrates that when people are determined to arm themselves, they can usually find a way to do so. In other words, there is always the possibility, however remote, of Bahrain degenerating into a sectarian civil war, a prospect that must make the royal family and the Sunni population in general exceptionally nervous. And, while there isn't any immediate prospect of Iranian intervention, Iranian territorial claims on Bahrain are deeply rooted in the history of the two countries and passionately believed in by lots of Iranians, and possibly by many Bahrainis as well. Certainly during the 50s and 60s under the Shah, Iran's continuing insistence that Bahrain was merely a province of their country led to considerable tensions with Britain and Arab states. Since the revolution Iran has been more quiet, but probably not less determined, about its territorial ambitions with regard to the Bahraini islands. The prospect of a long-term, even low-level, civil conflict that is sectarian and cultural most ominously presents a potential opportunity in the medium or long terms for possible indirect or even direct Iranian intervention, particularly if the power of that state continues to increase and the presence and influence of the United States wanes in the region.

Both the Bahraini protest movement and the government face a very difficult situation in which clear-cut victory is almost certainly not available. They both also have a great deal to lose and a great deal to fear. Therefore, in spite of the bitterness caused by the extreme overreaction and brutality of the military and police, and the deep divides that underlie the rebellion, a compromise seems virtually inevitable and nothing else makes any sense for either side. One can already see the government, or at least some parts of it, moving quickly in this direction. The Crown Prince in particular has indicated an understanding of the gravity of the situation and said at least some of the right things. His speech following the violent crackdown was a considerable contrast to speeches by former Egyptian Pres. Mubarak, in that it reflected an understanding of what exactly was going on in his country and the dangers at hand, and even implied some grasp of what would be required to get a grip on the situation. The military has been withdrawn from the streets, replaced by the police, which does not mean an end to the violent suppression of the protests but does indicate the government's recognition of the need to move away from confrontation and towards dialogue. The government has been calling for such a dialogue, and while it has been correctly observed that shooting people is not a good way of starting the conversation, I don't see a way out for either side without it.

Bahrain engaged in some significant political reforms during the last decade, although it backed away from some of them more recently. It has an elected parliament, although with very limited powers, and some legal political parties. The government of Bahrain has very little choice but to build on this legacy and expand the inclusivity of the system, particularly in an effort to enfranchise the Shiite majority and begin to repair the extreme alienation parts of it feels towards the entire social and political system of the country. It won't be starting from scratch, but it will be fighting its own deepest instincts. Internally, there is a powerful impulse to secure autocratic and minority rule against power-sharing and acknowledging the rights of the Shiite majority. Internationally, there is a powerful and rational fear of Iranian ambitions and influence, concerns shared by Bahrain's Gulf Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, if the government and ruling elite of Bahrain want to avoid continued unrest and more of these cyclical explosions of Shiite anger it has to begin to seriously change the relationship between the majority and minority, and between the state and its Shiite citizenry, as well as with the individual citizens in general. We are already seeing what appear to be efforts to balance the carrot and stick by the government, and I would expect those moves to continue, however slowly and haltingly, in the direction of a compromise which is the only way out for both sides, assuming most people want to avoid a degeneration into sustained chaos or even civil war.

Of course I'm suggesting here that much news coverage and analysis has misread events in Bahrain because it has lacked or elided this historical context, and has miscast it as the latest manifestation of a generalized Arab uprising against autocrats. It's not unconnected to that broader Arab wave of reformist protests, but it reflects a very unique set of circumstances and has much more in common with earlier Bahraini protest movements than with protest movements in the rest of the Arab world. Because the context is so different, the dynamics are also very different, and the choices facing the different actors involved are atypical. I don't think this has been made clear to most uninformed observers and most news coverage or analysis has failed to properly contextualize it and instead has tended to focus on the drama of the events, which was very striking of course, and the shocking brutality of the security services. But I think Bahrain remains very much a sideshow in the broader Arab realignment, wherever it is ultimately leading, and has its own unique dynamics which will play out in a singular manner and which is unlikely to tell us much about where the rest of the region, even other Gulf states with Shiite populations, is heading.

Meanwhile, in Libya, although virtually no foreign journalists or independent media are present on the ground, it's clear that the main feature is taking place, largely unobserved and woefully under analyzed. Human Right Watch has estimated that at least 84 people were killed in the past three days of protesting and unconfirmed reports suggest that a good deal of the eastern part of the country and significant cities such as Al-Bayda, and possibly even Benghazi, are not only the scenes of significant protests but may even have been partially seized by protesters. Good information is very hard to come by, but it looks like the aged, decrepit regime of Mouammar Gaddafi may be tottering at its foundations. Certainly the government in Tripoli seems the most likely candidate for early regime change at the moment, and it is considerably more vulnerable than the government in Manama. Even in simple geographical terms, it's impossible to miss the direct connection between this uprising in Libya and the revolts in its two immediate neighbors, Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. Of course there is a local context here — there always is and will be. But the Libyan uprising, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, seem very rooted in a generalized Arab disgust with autocracy, corruption, endless rule by individuals and their immediate families, and the sclerotic stasis which has seized so many Arab societies for so long. In other words, this is not only the main show, as opposed to the sideshow in Bahrain, it's a very logical next phase of a movement sweeping much of the Arab world that in turn will set the stage for what happens next elsewhere.

The most important of those elsewheres in the immediate or medium term will almost certainly be Yemen. The country is the scene of at least two civil wars, a robust Al Qaeda presence, a heavily armed, largely uneducated and very poor population, and an incompetent government led by a widely disliked and corrupt president who, like Mubarak and Qaddafi, has been in power for decades without delivering effective or decent governance to his country. Yemen is not only fragmented and already chaotic, it is also exceptionally strategically located and has very powerful cultural, social and familial connections to southern and western Saudi Arabia, which is almost certainly the most brittle of all Gulf states given its large population, increasing poverty and significant disgruntled Shiite minority. What happens in Yemen will almost certainly have a significant impact outside its borders, for many reasons. That's very unlikely to be the case with Bahrain, and while what happens in Libya will have an influence it's not as volatile a case as Yemen by any means. The protest movement is already underway in Yemen, and it may take quite a while for it to develop the kind of critical mass we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, and now to some extent in Bahrain and, it would appear, in Libya. But there is every indication that the tracks have been laid and the train is heading towards the station, and diverting it is going to be extremely challenging for the government in Sanna.

More interestingly, while there will almost certainly be a clear winner and loser in Libya as in Egypt and Tunisia (and it will probably play itself out fairly quickly), and while there will almost certainly be no winners or losers as such in Bahrain, Yemen could be much more complex in its outcome. And by complex read dangerous. There are would-be breakaway provinces, regional tensions, sectarian differences, international interference from various parties, and of course the presence of international terrorists. Utter chaos in Yemen is a distinct possibility, as is its transition from a partly-failed to a fully-failed state, a potential Somalia on the corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Journalists and analysts have been so mesmerized by the dramatic images coming out of, and their own presence in, Bahrain that the potential implications of a deteriorating situation in Yemen have been almost entirely unremarked upon. This indicates a certain shallowness of analysis that frequently characterizes coverage and observations of Middle Eastern events, and the very annoying tendency of journalists to believe that if they are physically present, or at least have dramatic footage, this means the story is the most important one. That's not true, obviously, as the contrast between the woefully underreported events in Libya and the heavily covered (except by Al Jazeera, for obvious reasons) but ultimately almost certainly less significant events in Bahrain, demonstrates.

Of course it's a fair point that it's difficult to cover a story in a closed, locked-down society like Libya with no independent media and no willingness to grant visas to foreign journalists, especially in contrast to a relatively open society like Bahrain. But, excuse me, that's what journalists are for — to find a way of getting the facts on the biggest story rather than parachuting in, as so many prominent Western reporters have done in Manama, and focusing on the story they have as if it were the most important one for that very reason. Several big-name American and other Western journalists have done that parachuting into Bahrain, and have not distinguished themselves very well in the process. Some have even managed to over-dramatize what is an extremely dramatic, tragic and horrifying situation on its own terms. There is a certain solipsism at work here, and it hasn't been very edifying.

But even if Western and other reporters wanted to make Bahrain the big story in recent days because they were physically present, had good footage and could cover the events more easily and in a more compelling way, it doesn't change the fact that what's happening in Libya has been more dramatic, more brutal, more significant, and has far deeper implications. Or the fact that what seems to be brewing in Yemen could very possibly be more significant than either of them. My first reaction on Twitter to the apparently forced “resignation” of Pres. Mubarak was to state the obvious: that this would not stop with Egypt and would certainly spread far and wide in the Arab world, one stage at a time (most of the small, rich Gulf states being immune due to wealth and limited populations, and Iraq and Lebanon having their own dynamics). The epicenter of this broader Arab reawakening is clearly now in Libya, with Yemen and others waiting in the wings. At some point coverage and analysis is going to have to begin to be able to tell the difference between the big picture and a compelling but ultimately isolated sideshow.

More Arab democracy, Palestinian this time

In what is probably a long-overdue move, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has called for new local, presidential and parliamentary elections before September.

The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority are finally beginning to proactively tackle the crisis of legitimacy that resulted from the split within the Palestinian national movement between the PLO and Hamas after 1997. Many Palestinians have been elected to many offices in recent years, but everyone’s term has expired, and rivalry between the different factions has prevented new elections from resolving this crisis of legitimacy.

The recent unrest in Egypt, like the new sense throughout the Arab world that political leadership must be legitimate and based on the consent of the governed through elections, may well have added to the sense of urgency among Palestinian leaders.

Domestically and internationally, the lack of elections has been used consistently as a cudgel with which to attack everything the mainstream Palestinian leadership has been doing, most notably negotiations with Israel and state-building in the West Bank. The critics have argued that the absence of recent elections means that what the PLO and the Palestinian Authority do is subject to serious doubt, although the same standard is rarely applied to Hamas.

In fact the onus for the lack of elections lies with Hamas, which most predictably has rejected the new election plans as “a conspiracy against the Palestinian people.” Hamas rejected plans for elections in January 2010 under Palestinian law and an Egyptian proposal that would have allowed for elections last July. Its position was that national reconciliation had to precede elections. This was a ploy designed to cover up for the fact that the organization, quite reasonably, feared the results of Palestinian voting under the present circumstances.

The logic was tortured, since there are no other means to clarify the will of the Palestinian people or to set the stage for national reconciliation and define on whose terms reconciliation will largely be based. It was a dodge, designed to avoid elections whose results would almost certainly have been unfavorable to Hamas, following more than two years of freefalling political credibility, at least among Palestinians.

But Fatah also bears its share of the responsibility. Last summer the Palestinian Authority was planning local elections in the West Bank. These were called off at the last minute, apparently because, even though Fatah was largely, or at least formally, unopposed in many races, it seemingly was unable to organize itself sufficiently. The local elections would have been a very good step forward, and their sudden cancellation was a considerable embarrassment.

However, the current plans offer one of the few obvious ways for the Palestinians to reunite amicably, and for the Palestinian people to make their preferences about national leadership and policy clear. It is, of course, vital that elections actually be held. It will also be important to give opposition groups, including Hamas, a serious opportunity to put forward candidates and campaign. Palestinians have proven with the presidential elections in 2005 and the parliamentary elections in 2006 that they are more than capable of holding free and fair elections.

If elections are called for and then abandoned or indefinitely postponed, or held under dubious circumstances with real questions about their legitimacy, it would be better not to hold them in the first place. Since Hamas is likely to oppose the election plans and fare poorly, it can and should have to bear the political price for this.

The biggest question mark is over the future of President Mahmoud Abbas. He has repeatedly said he would not stand in future elections, but there is no clear successor to him in Fatah or the PLO. But politicians change their minds, and standing in a free and fair election would not be illegitimate for Abbas. On the other hand, the president seems genuinely to have had enough of national leadership.

No doubt there will be efforts to convince Abbas that since there are no clear, plausible alternatives at this stage, he should reconsider his earlier pronouncements. That is especially true since it is not clear what kind of leadership and policies might emerge otherwise.

Egypt’s case demonstrates that change can be both necessary and risky, and the Palestinian leadership is wise to seek to manage change by calling for new elections. If it holds them and abides by the results, with or without Hamas cooperation, it will be a significant step bolstering both the leadership’s legitimacy and the Palestinian national project.

A New American Strategy for the Middle East Is a Must (with Prof. Saliba Sarsar)

The United States stands at the horns of a dilemma in its relationships with the Middle East. The hesitant or on-the-boundary response of the Obama administration to the frozen Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, the ouster of authoritarian Tunisian President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali, the people’s uprising in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak (another autocrat), and opposition protests in Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere around the Arab World — all point toward the need for a new American strategy for the Middle East.

Historically, the United States advanced its interests in the region by reducing or eliminating Soviet influence during the Cold War; securing access to natural resources, especially oil; cultivating military and other alliances with key states; and cultivating its special relationship with the State of Israel. In most cases, business as usual was conducted, with the US investing much in dictatorships, while paying little attention to the aspirations and needs of the general populace. A classic example is the American close alliance with the Shah of Iran, which ultimately ushered the theocratic rule of first the Mullahs and now the Revolutionary Guards, the speeding up of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the recent decline in American influence in the Gulf.

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and claims about “the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” the United States shifted gears by invading Iraq in 2003 and ousting its dictator Saddam Hussein, proclaiming our commitment to opposing tyrants and promoting democracy. Yet business as usual continued with other Arab countries continued, at a time when none of them had a passing grade on democracy. This is has been framed as either a contradiction between aspirational rhetoric and actual policies, or between the “short term interests” in stability, oil resources and Israeli security versus “long term interests” that include promoting American values of freedom and democracy in the Arab world in practice. Either way, there is a long and universally recognized gap between American policies towards governments and governance in the Arab world and our traditional ideals that has not served our interests well or enhanced our reputation with the peoples of the region.

The administration of George W. Bush rhetorically recognized this dilemma with frequent calls for the development of a “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. However, this agenda was noticeably absent from any major policy changes. And the main product of it, the “Greater Middle East Initiative,” proposal was poorly conceptualized, composed without any Arab input to speak of, slated for presentation at an international meeting at which neither Arab governments nor civil society would be present, and ultimately faded into memory. Its one-size-fits-all approach and aura of outside intervention without consultation doomed the approach and interest in its ideas in Washington seemed to vanish with the rise of the insurgency in Iraq and its implications for the administration’s assumptions about how best to promote change in the region.

President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 was significant as it raised the hopes of Muslims, Arabs, and others by calling for greater understanding between peoples, rejection of extremist violence, respect for basic human rights, elimination of nuclear weapons, and mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. Words might inspire for a time, but can also ring hollow if not backed by policies reflecting a real desire for positive change and that promote that goal through actions. In apparent contrast to Bush administration rhetoric about a “freedom agenda,” the Obama administration has emphasized rebuilding alliances, out-stretched hands, diplomacy, ending rather than starting wars, and, above all, the quest for stability and conflict resolution (especially between Israel and the Palestinians). As events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are showing, this approach has not proved any more successful in placing the United States on the side of the Arab peoples and their aspirations or in securing either well-managed reforms or regional stability.

While continuing to promote its vital interests in the Middle East, our country clearly needs to develop a new American strategy, which will hopefully help engender a new, more democratic and stable Arab world and Middle East. The following principles should be central to this new approach, if events are not to overtake us completely and make it much more difficult for the United States to promote both our interests and our values in the region:

• Communicate American intentions and policies accurately and clearly, and avoid reserving pressure for real reforms to private meetings, out of the public perception. Conveying a consistent message on American expectation of its allies would counteract widespread misconceptions, misunderstandings, and conspiracy theories about the US role in the region. Leaks, too, would thereby be rendered largely irrelevant.

• Balance principles with pragmatism by imparting a vision for a better tomorrow and simultaneously serving in practice to bring freedom and hope to peoples who have been stuck in conflict, corruption, oppression, and poverty for generations. This must apply not only to the Arab states, Turkey and Iran, but also to Israeli policies, especially in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even-handedness will be a key perception if our country is to play a more positive and effective role in coming years.

• Put forward a broad conception of democracy, one that includes fair, free, and frequent elections, in addition to the other essential building blocks: good governance, transparency and separation of power within governments; freedom of speech, press, and religion; basic human rights for individual citizens, minority groups and women; human development; and economic freedom.

• Emphasize human security rather than military prowess. When unimpeded, human security makes possible freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to live in dignity.

• Link economic assistance and military aid to the ability of governments to achieve country-specific goals, mainly concrete and transparent democratic improvements and economic measures aimed at improving the quality of life and opportunities for the general public. Ensure that our economic assistance reaches its intended target and is heavily complemented by public diplomacy and cultural outreach that also impact people’s daily lives.

• Create an international consensus and a coalition for moderation and peace, one that is perceived, insofar as possible, to serve the interests of all parties as they themselves define those interests. Dictates or dominance, not to mention invasions, will likely backfire in reform and democracy promotion, and are more likely promote disintegration and instability.

• Press hard to resolve the region’s endemic issues, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, based on two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in security, peace, and prosperity. Ending this conflict, as the American Task Force on Palestine has repeatedly argued, will enhance American national security and strike a powerful blow at the ideology of terrorism and extremism, improve American ability to further democracy and other American values in the region and around the world, and provide significant economic opportunities for both Americans and the region. Arabs and Muslims around the world will be far more likely to see the United States as a force that takes their interests, and their dignity, seriously, and that is sincere in urging the promotion of democracy, if the onerous and long-standing occupation that began in 1967 is finally ended, especially if our country is seen as playing the key role in achieving that long-sought goal.

Vacillation between principles and pragmatism leads to confusion and inconsistency in foreign policy application, and, even more, to perceptions of our intentions and our commitment to our founding values of freedom and democracy. Untempered, seemingly unconditional and purely pragmatic, alliances with regimes that dehumanize their citizens creates a loss of credibility, as does our special relationship with Israel as long as the occupation continues with no clear end in sight. Lest we forget: leaders are transitory, citizens are permanent. It is, ultimately, the Arab and other Middle Eastern peoples with whom we must develop truly lasting alliances and friendships.

If the United States is to have a more effective and consistent foreign policy in the Middle East, our strategy should be anchored in basic American values and in equity, symmetry, and transparency, and be both people-centered and performance-based. Only then will President Obama’s statement, “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal… [and] the United States will stand up for them everywhere” ring as true, and produce as much trust, as it needs to.