Middle East and Nort Africa (MENA) news: Meet Egypt's revolutionaries
- Portraits of courage: Meet Egypt's revolutionaries
The world was gripped as youthful crowds stormed Tahrir Square – but who were the Egyptian revolutionaries? The award-winning photographer Kim Badawi endured beatings, bullets and tear gas to find out
By Jonathan Owen
Sunday, 6 March 2011
These are the faces of a generation that changed history, their grim expressions of defiance testament to surviving weeks of violent protest that were to result in the overthrow of one of the Middle East's most powerful dictators.
The individuals in these pictures, taken by the award-winning American photographer Kim Badawi, come from all walks of life, from interpreters and students to café workers and the unemployed. And in the breadth of their backgrounds, they symbolise a wider movement challenging decades of authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.
Change, however, comes at a price. Hundreds died and many more were injured during the violent clashes in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which became the centre for a protest that refused to buckle under an onslaught of tear gas, beatings, water cannon and bullets.
Pushing for a Palestinian Tahrir
Feeling abandoned by their political leadership, Palestinian youth are pushing for change.
Sandy Tolan Last Modified: 05 Mar 2011 14:55 GMT
Is Syria the next domino?
With autocratic regimes tumbling around the region, well-educated young Syrians want - and deserve - a taste of freedom.
Ribal al-Assad Last Modified: 06 Mar 2011 10:04 GMT
With the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes gone and street protests roiling cities from Algiers to Tehran, many people are now wondering which domino might fall next. Syria, whose secular, militarised dictatorship most closely resembles the fallen regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, may not be next in line - but appears nonetheless to be approaching a tipping point.
Of course, the old "domino theory" of international relations was merely a crude way of emphasising that different parts of any region are linked to each other. For today’s Arab world, a better metaphor might be a chessboard, from which the removal of even a pawn inevitably alters the relationships among all other pieces.
Today, as protests mount and multiply, the government of every Arab state in the Middle East and North Africa probably believes that, if left to its own devices, it can contain internal dissent.
In Syria, it seems inevitable that protest may soon crack the regime's brittle political immobility. Most ordinary Syrians face extremely difficult economic and social conditions, including high unemployment, rising food prices, constraints on personal freedom, and endemic corruption. These factors are no different from those that brought people to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East. What began as protests over living conditions became full-scale demands for freedom and democracy.
Thousands protest in Bahrain
Demonstrators gather outside PM's office in capital, Manama, demanding premier step down and monarchy be overthrown.
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2011 11:17 GMT
Thousands of protesters have gathered outside the prime minister's office in Bahrain to demand that he step down, as their campaign for reform in the tiny Gulf nation enters its third week.
Protesters on Sunday massed at the Al-Qudaibiya Palace in the capital, Manama, where Bahrain's cabinet usually meets, chanting slogans against the government and King Hamad.
Demonstrators shouted "Topple Hamad! Topple Hamad!" and "Hey Khalifa, get out! Get out!", referring to the country's long-time prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa.
"We want the prime minister to go," Alaa al-Nasr, a 24-year-old demonstrator, told the AFP news agency.
The protesters are demanding the prime minister step down because of corruption and a deadly crackdown on the opposition in which seven people were killed.
Protesters also chanted for the 2002 constitution, which they say gave too much power to the monarchy, to be scrapped.
"The 2002 constitution falls for the sake of Bahrain," demonstrators said.
Pushing for a Palestinian Tahrir
Feeling abandoned by their political leadership, Palestinian youth are pushing for change.
Sandy Tolan Last Modified: 05 Mar 2011 14:55 GMT
Gunfire erupts in Libyan capital
Heavy shooting reported in Tripoli, as protests against Muammar Gaddafi's more than 41-year-old rule continue.
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2011 09:32 GMT
Sustained gunfire erupted in the centre of Libya's capital, Tripoli, an area that has so far been relatively free of violence.
It was unclear who was carrying out the shooting, which started early on Sunday, or what caused it, Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the capital, said.
Automatic weapon rounds, some of it heavy calibre, echoed around central Tripoli along with pro-government chants, whistling and a cacophony of car horns as vehicles sped through the vicinity, witnesses said.
However, a government spokesman denied any fighting was under way in Tripoli. "I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, there is no fighting going on in Tripoli," Mussa Ibrahim told the Reuters news agency.
"Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 per cent under control. What you are hearing is celebratory fireworks. People are in the streets, dancing in the square."
Our correspondent, reporting from Green Square in Tripoli, said that thousands of people had turned out to show their support to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“The square is absolutely thronged with supporters of Gaddafi,” McNaught said. But she added that some of these 'supporters' had admitted to a fellow British journalist on Sunday that they were in fact army and police personnel in civillian clothes.
Tripoli is the main stronghold of Gaddafi, who is facing a sustained rebellion that has posed the biggest challenge ever to his more than 41-year-old rule.
Libyan state television said the shots in Tripoli were in celebration of Gaddafi forces having reclaimed the cities of Misurata and Az-Zawiyah, which lies just 50km west of the capital, a day after anti-government fighters repelled repeated attacks by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
The Libyan government has announced widespread tax cuts to mark what it called "victory" over the rebels.
Gaddafi 'tightens grip' on Zawiya
By Maria Golovnina, Reuters
Saturday, 5 March 2011
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces have encircled the western town of Zawiya after being pushed back by rebels earlier today, according to reports, while rebels captured the oil port of Ras Lanouf.
"Zawiya is encircled by Gaddafi's forces, there are a lot of checkpoints. They are tightening their grip on the centre," a Reuters journalist said, adding government forces were manning checkpoints some two miles from the centre of town.
"Access to central Zawiya is completely blocked," she said.
Youssef Shagan, the rebel force spokesman in Zawiya said, earlier, "They entered Az Zawiya at six in the morning with heavy forces, hundreds of soldiers with tanks. Our people fought back ... We have won for now and civilians are gathering in the square,"
"We captured 3 APCs, two tanks and one pick-up after an hour and a half of fighting. A lot of civilians fled when the fighting started," he said, adding that there were government snipers in the town.
Earlier reports said Gaddafi's forces had reasserted broad control of the Mediterranean coastal town, 30 miles west of the capital Tripoli but had run into rebel resistance in a central square.
A rebel fighter in central Zawiya told Reuters by phone that Gaddafi's forces were re-grouping at the entrance of the town after being pushed back this morning.
"Gaddafi will never enter this city. He will never set foot here. The only way for him to enter the city is when we are all dead. He has to kill us all to control the city," said the rebel, who gave his name as Ibrahim.
He said there were casualties on both sides but could not give a precise number.
Al Jazeera carried similar reports about fighting in the town, 30 miles west of the capital Tripoli, and said tanks had fired on homes.
In eastern Libya, rebel fighters said they had gained further ground in a westward thrust against Gaddafi's forces, taking the town of Bin Jawad some 525 km east of Tripoli.
Earlier in the day further east, however, conflict broke out again in the oil port of Ras Lanuf, 660 km from Tripoli, when rebels fired on a swooping government army helicopter a day after they reported capturing the town, witnesses said.
Ras Lanuf was firmly in rebel control today and the frontline had moved west of the town.
Rebels said Gaddafi's forces bombed an arms depot yesterday at Rajma, on the outskirts of Libya's second city of Benghazi, which is now in rebel hands.
A two-week-old uprising against four decades of autocratic Gaddafi rule has left undisciplined but dedicated rebels generally dominant in eastern Libya and his government in the west. But the latest fighting suggested front lines were far from clear and could shift quickly.
Counter-attacks by Gaddafi loyalists this week suggest the flamboyant autocrat will not go quietly or quickly as leaders in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia did in a tide of popular unrest rolling across the Middle East.
There was no sign of pro-Gaddafi soldiers in Ras Lanuf today although the government had denied the rebel claim yesterday to be in control of Ras Lanuf.
Robert Fisk: The Tunisian whose jihad was for the people, not God
Saturday, 5 March 2011
The second Arab awakening of modern history – the first was the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire – requires some new definitions, perhaps even some new words in at least the English language.
And some new calculator that will instantly register the old age of dictators and the growing army of the young. If you survive into senility, you can enter the category of great political criminals of contemporary history.
My Maghreb colleague Béchir Ben Yahmed has pointed out that after 42 years in power, Muammar Gaddafi is up there with the worst of them. Kim Il-Sung registered 46 years, Saddam a mere 35 years. Mubarak scored 32 years in the dictatorship stakes, Sékou Touré of Guinea 26 years, Franco of Spain and Salazar of Portugal, the same number. On this scale, Tony Blair's puny 10-years-plus substantially reduces his status as a war criminal, a man who might be allowed – instead of arraignment for the illegal invasion of Iraq – a lavish villa in Sharm el-Sheikh (where, after all, Cherie used to like to stay at the Mubarak government's expense).
Youths 'attack Algerian protesters'
Reports say pro-regime supporters attacked protesters and tried to lynch prominent opposition politician in Algiers.
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2011 13:44 GMT
Anti-government protesters have been attacked in the Algerian capital and an attempt made to lynch a prominent opposition politician, local media have said.
The reports said that protests organised by the National Co-ordination for Democracy and Change (CNDC) in Algiers were violently suppressed on Saturday morning.
According to the the Algerian daily newspaper El Watan, a group of youths tried to lynch Said Sadi, the president of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).
Dozens of youths wearing banners supporting Abdelaziz Bouteflicka, the Algerian president, forced Sadi to flee in his car after they threatened to kill him in the al-Madania neighbourhood of Algiers, the publication said.
The CNDC is an umbrella group that was founded in January in the wake of riots that killed five people and wounded over 800.
Other recent protests in Algeria have been violently supressed by security forces. The CNDC has lost support from other opposition groups, which argue Sadi has exploited them for personal political gain.
Algeria recently repealed its controversial state of emergency, but public protest remains banned.
Meanwhile, Algeria's oldest opposition party has urged Algerians to engage in a "peaceful struggle" for change in the nation a day ahead of a planned anti-government demonstration in the capital.
Distancing itself from the protests organised by the CNDC, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) focused on its historic pan-Maghreb roots, expressing solidarity with similar struggles in neighbouring Tunisia, Morocco and Libya.
"We need a peaceful struggle every day. It's this civic exercise that ... will bring change," Karim Tabbou, the first secretary of the FFS, told a gathering of about 3,000 people in Algiers.
"We will not get caught in confrontation and violence," he added, speaking in a room decorated with portraits of Hocine Ait-Ahmed, the party's leader.
Ait-Ahmed, 84, was one of the earliest leaders of the struggle against French colonial rule.
Those present at the meeting called for the creation of a new pan-North African group "Maghreb for the people" as opposed to the now-defunct Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), founded in 1989 by Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia.
"Neither Morocco or Algeria will be exceptions [to the wave of uprisings] change is inevitable," declared Mustapha Labraimi of the Moroccan Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS).
The UMA broke down in 1994 due to political differences among its members and the longrunning conflict between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara.
Mustapha Bouchachi, the president of the Algerian Human Rights League, called for more freedom after years of civil strife.
"People the world over deserve to enjoy freedom and democracy, but I don't know of another people which has sacrificed so much to fight for its freedom and obtain its independence," he said.
Oman's ruler dismisses ministers
Gulf state's sultan replaces three top government officials as protesters demand an end to corruption and better wages
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2011 07:40 GMT
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said has replaced three top government officials, after protests erupted demanding reforms and an end to corruption in the Gulf state, state media has reported.
Demonstrators have urged the sultan to dismiss all government ministers and have them investigated for any illegal activities.
The sultan appointed Khaled bin Hilal bin Saud al-Busaidi as a minister of the royal court, replacing Sayed Ali bin Hmud al-Busaidi, the state ONA news agency said on Saturday.
He also appointed Sultan bin Mohammed al-Numani as minister in the sultan's office, replacing General Ali bin Majid al-Maamari, it added.
Nasr bin Hamoud bin Ahmed al Kindi was named as the new secretary general of royal court affairs.
Meanwhile, protests in the country have spread to a key oil region, Haima, with oil workers staging a sit-in in the area about 500km southwest of the capital Muscat.
The oil workers are calling for more government investment in the area, a government official told the Associated Press.
Demonstrations flared last week, with protesters seeking jobs and a greater political voice. One demonstrator was killed.
Sultan Qaboos has since ordered 50,000 new civil service jobs. But the measure failed to halt sit-ins in Muscat and the northern industrial city of Sohar, where the unrest began.
Anti-government protesters continued to rally in Oman on Friday, while rival demonstrations were also held in support of Sultan Qaboos.
Oman is the latest country to be hit by the wave of popular protests that has rattled several Arab states and swept from power the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
But the anti-government sentiment in Oman differs from the rest of the region's turmoil , as there has been much less violence and more support for the country's leader.
"We are making this to support the sultan, not to face against the sultan. We are just facing the corruption here," Yousef al-Zadjali, a protest spokesman in the city of Sohar told Al Jazeera.
Sultan Qaboos brought peace to Oman soon after taking power in a palace coup 41 years ago.
He also delivered a public health system, improved infrastructure and granted more rights for women than many other Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia bans protest rallies
Interior ministry vows to use all steps "to prevent attempts to disrupt public order" following recent Shia protests.
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2011 15:15 GMT
Saudi Arabia has banned all protests and marches following recent anti-government protests in the kingdom’s east, reports say.
State television on Saturday quoted the interior ministry as saying that security forces would use all measures to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order.
The ban on public demonstrations comes amid media reports of a huge mobilisation of Saudi troops in Shia-dominated provinces in order to quell any possible uprising.
According to The Independent, a British newspaper, 10,000 security personnel are being sent to the region by road, clogging highways into Dammam and other cities.
A restive Shia population has staged a series of protests in the kingdom’s east in the past weeks. Their grievances range from lack of equal economic and employment opportunities to detentions without trial.
On Saturday, small protests were held in the cities of Hofuf and Qatif.
The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies any discrimination against the Shia community.
The authorities, however, are increasingly on edge following the anti-governmnent protests sweeping across the Arab world.
Last week, King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a three-month medical absence and unveiled $37bn in benefits for citizens in an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from protests.
Talk to Jazeera: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi
Libya's falling tyrant
Gaddafi reaps what he has sown during his four-decade rule: terror, nepotism, tribal politics and abuse of power.
Egypt PM addresses Tahrir rally
Essam Sharaf speaks to thousands of pro-democracy campaigners who had gathered in centre of Cairo after Friday prayers.
Anti-government protests in Bahrain
Thousands converge in the capital, and in a neighbouring town, one day after clashes between Sunni and Shia communities.
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2011 21:21 GMT
Yemeni army 'fires on protesters'
Soldiers fire rockets at anti-government demonstrators in the country's north, killing four people, rebels say.
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2011 11:33 GMT
Yemeni soldiers opened fire on an anti-government protest in the country's north, killing at least four people and wounding around seven others, as demonstrations against president Ali Abdullah Saleh continued.
Soldiers fired rockets and artillery at protesters in Semla, a village in the northern province of Amran on Friday, sources said. The area, about 170km from the capital Sanaa, is a Houthi stronghold.
"During a peaceful protest this Friday morning ... demanding the fall of the regime, an end to corruption and political
change, a military site fired rockets at a group of protesters and hit dozens of people," Houthi rebels, named after their leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Sanaa, said local security forces dismissed the Houthi's account of events, saying armed tribesmen tried to enter one of the city's security checkpoints by force, after which "clashes ensued, three tribesmen and four policemen were injured".
Meanwhile, president Saleh on Friday rejected a proposal by opposition groups that offered him a smooth exit from power by the end of 2011.
"The president rejected the proposal and is holding on to his previous offer," Yemen's opposition's rotating president
Mohammed al-Mutawakil said.
Tunisia PM: New cabinet in two days
Beji Caid Essebsi speaks for the first time since joining interim authority that is to stay in power until elections.
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2011 10:57 GMT
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia's newly-appointed prime minister, has said he hopes to form a new interim government within two days.
He said the country was entering a new era and that the road ahead would be challenging.
"Today we are working with a popular revolution that does not have a framework," the prime minister said on Friday during a press conference in the capital, Tunis.
Battle for Brega could mark start of real war in Libya
At least six people die as eastern town fights off attack by pro-Gaddafi forces
Robert Fisk: The historical narrative that lies beneath the Gaddafi rebellion
Poor old Libyans. After 42 years of Gaddafi, the spirit of resistance did not burn so strongly. The intellectual heart of Libya had fled abroad.
Libyans have always opposed foreign occupiers just as the Algerians and the Egyptians and the Yemenis have done – but their Beloved Leader has always presented himself as a fellow resister rather than a dictator. Hence in his long self-parody of a speech in Tripoli yesterday, he invoked Omar Mukhtar – hanged by Mussolini's colonial army – rather than the patronising tone of a Mubarak or a Ben Ali.
And who was he going to free Libya from? Al-Qa'ida, of course. Indeed, at one point in his Green Square address, Gaddafi made a very interesting remark. His Libyan intelligence service, he said, had helped to free al-Qa'ida members from the US prison at Guantanamo in return for a promise that al-Qa'ida would not operate in Libya or attack his regime. But al-Qa'ida betrayed the Libyans, he insisted, and set up "sleeper cells" in the country.
Whether Gaddafi believes all this or not, there have been many rumours in the Arab world of contacts between Gaddafi's secret police and al-Qa'ida operatives, meetings intended to avoid a recurrence of the miniature Islamist uprising that Gaddafi faced years ago in Benghazi.
And many al-Qa'ida members did come from Libya – hence the frequent nomme de guerre of "al-Libi" which they added as a patronymic. Natural it then was for Gaddafi, who once hosted Abu Nidal's Palestinian assassination groups (who never betrayed him), to suspect that al-Qa'ida lay somewhere behind the uprising in eastern Libya.
It is only a matter of time, needless to say, before Gaddafi reminds Libyans that al-Qa'ida was a satellite of the very Arab mujahedin used by the United States to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Yet Libya's own ferocious resistance to Italian colonisation proves that its people know how to fight and die. In "Tripolitania", Libyans were expected to walk in the gutter if Italians were walking towards them on the same pavement and Fascist Italy used aircraft as well as occupation troops to bring Libya to heel.
Ironically, it was the forces of the British and Americans rather than the Italians that liberated Libya. And they themselves left behind a legacy of millions of landmines around Tobruk and Benghazi that Gaddafi's weird regime never ceased to exploit as Libyan shepherds continued to die on the old battlefields of the Second World War.
So Libyans are not disconnected from history. Their grandfathers – in some cases their fathers – fought against the Italians; thus a foundation of resistance, a real historical narrative, lies beneath their opposition to Gaddafi; hence Gaddafi's own adoption of resistance – to the mythical threat of al-Qa'ida's "foreign" brutality – is supposed to maintain support for his regime.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, however, the "People's Masses" of Libya are a tribal rather than a societal nation. Hence two members of Gaddafi's own family – the head of security in Tripoli and the most influential intelligence officer in Benghazi – were respectively his nephew, Abdel Salem Alhadi, and his cousin, Mabrouk Warfali. Gaddafi's own tribe, the Guedaffi, come from the desert between Sirte and Sebha; hence the western region of Libya remains under his control.
Talk of civil war in Libya – the kind of waffle currently emerging from Hillary Clinton's State Department – is nonsense. All revolutions, bloody or otherwise, are usually civil wars unless outside powers intervene, which Western nations clearly do not intend to do and the people of eastern Libya have already said they do not wish for foreign intervention (David Cameron, please note).
But Gaddafi went to war in Chad – and lost. Gaddafi's regime is not a great military power and Colonel Gaddafi is not General Gaddafi. Yet he will go on singing his anti-colonial songs and as long as his security teams are prepared to hold on in the west of the country, he can flaunt himself in Tripoli.
And a warning: under UN sanctions, Iraqis were supposed to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They didn't – because they were too busy trying to keep their families alive without bread or fresh water or money. Saddam lost all but four provinces of Iraq in the 1991 rebellion. But he got them back.
Now western Libyans live without bread or fresh water or money. And Gaddafi yesterday spoke in Tripoli's Green Square with the same resolution to "rescue" Benghazi from "terrorists". Dictators don't like or trust each other; but unfortunately they do learn from each other.
We saw the Arab revolutions coming
Al Jazeera's director general asks why, when Al Jazeera saw the uprisings coming, the West did not.
Wadah Khanfar Last Modified: 01 Mar 2011 08:44 GMT
Yemen: A revolution in waiting?
In a country torn by internal divisions, the risks posed by a power vacuum must not be underestimated.
Murad Alazzany Last Modified: 01 Mar 2011 15:00 GMT
We are not the enemy
An Arab Jew argues for bridging East and West with peace and justice for all.
Jordan Elgrably Last Modified: 28 Feb 2011 12:11 GMT
Robert Fisk: Panic on borders as chaos engulfs Libya
Tens of thousands flee mounting violence as UN warns of urgent humanitarian crisis
Egypt imposes travel ban on Mubarak
The day the Katiba fell
Libya's turning point may have come when protesters overwhelmed a barracks in Benghazi.
Evan Hill Last Modified: 01 Mar 2011 08:58 GMT
Body bags reveal fate of soldiers who refused to fire on their own people
A brutal picture of the start of Libya's uprising is beginning to emerge. Kim Sengupta and Catrina Stewart report from Benghazi
Tuesday, 1 March 2011
The bodies were in dark green shrouds lying on the concrete floor of the morgue, 10 prisoners shot and then set on fire as the security forces of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a last round of vengeful violence before being forced to flee.
The dead men are said to have been soldiers who had refused to open fire on those marching against the regime. They had been disarmed and beaten up by their comrades before being incarcerated in an underground cell in al-Katiba, the main military encampment in Benghazi.
The account of the last days of the inmates came from a Libyan army officer who subsequently surrendered to the rebels and changed sides. He was able to provide names of some of those killed, all local men, but bereaved relations had not been able to identify the charred remains
Mohammed el-Targi, in charge of processing fatalities at al-Jala hospital, said: "Normally there are some parts of bodies in cases of burnings which shows who the person was, but there was very little left in these cases. We had wives, parents, children of these poor men come here and they were all crying. One mother said that although she could not identify her own boy, all of those killed are her sons now."
Yesterday, after days of cold rain and stormy winds, Libya's second city woke up to bright sunshine and warmth. Shops and businesses opened after the impromptu holiday which accompanied the revolution as people began to go about their daily lives once more.
Despite this return to a sort of normality, dark secrets of the brutalities at the time of the uprising have started to emerge. The burnt bodies at the morgue were a pitiful sight. "They were shaheeds [martyrs]. They sacrificed themselves rather than harm their own people," said Fateh Elami, the duty manager at the hospital. "We should put up a memorial to them."
Former radio engineer in Libya using newfound freedom
As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al Qaeda Sees History Fly By
For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al Qaeda have denounced the Arab world’s dictators as heretics and puppets of the West and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders — and Al Qaeda has played absolutely no role.
In fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.
So for Al Qaeda — and perhaps no less for the American policies that have been built around the threat it poses — the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world’s attention present a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?
For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, though not all, the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.
“So far — and I emphasize so far — the score card looks pretty terrible for Al Qaeda,” said Paul R. Pillar, who studied terrorism and the Middle East for nearly three decades at the C.I.A. and is now at Georgetown University. “Democracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.”
If the terrorists network’s leaders hope to seize the moment, they have been slow off the mark. Mr. bin Laden has been silent. His Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued three rambling statements from his presumed hide-out in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region that seemed oddly out of sync with the news, not noting the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whose government detained and tortured Mr. Zawahri in the 1980s.
“Knocking off Mubarak has been Zawahri’s goal for more than 20 years, and he was unable to achieve it,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation. “Now a nonviolent, nonreligious, pro-democracy movement got rid of him in a matter of weeks. It’s a major problem for Al Qaeda.”
The Arab revolutions, of course, remain very much a work in progress, as the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, orders a bloody defense of Tripoli, and Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, negotiates to cling to power. The breakdown of order could create havens for terrorist cells, at least for a time — a hazard both Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Saleh have prevented, winning the gratitude of the American government.
“There’s an operational advantage for militants in any place where law enforcement and domestic security are weak and distracted,” said Steven Simon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror.” But over all, he said, developments in the Arab countries are a strategic defeat for violent jihadism.
“These uprisings have shown that the new generation is not terribly interested in Al Qaeda’s ideology,” Mr. Simon said. He called the Zawahri statements “forlorn, if not pathetic.”
There is evidence that the uprisings have enthralled some jihadists. One Algerian man associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s North African affiliate, welcomed the uprisings in a weekend interview and said militants were returning from exile to join the battle in Libya, arming themselves from government weapons caches.
“Since the land is in chaos and Qaddafi is helping through his reactions and actions to increase the hatred of the population against him, it will be easier for us to recruit new members,” said the Algerian man, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Salman. He said that Libyans and Tunisians who had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan were now considering a return home.
“There is lots of work to do,” he said. “We have to help the people fighting and then build an Islamic state.”
Abu Khaled, a Jordanian jihadist who fought in Iraq with the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, suggested that Al Qaeda would benefit in the long run from dashed hopes.
“At the end of the day, how much change will there really be in Egypt and other countries?” he asked. “There will be many disappointed demonstrators, and that’s when they will realize what the only alternative is. We are certain that this will all play into our hands.”
Michael Scheuer, author of a new biography of Mr. bin Laden and head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit in the late 1990s, thinks such enthusiasm is more than wishful thinking.
Mr. Scheuer says he believes that Americans, including many experts, have wildly misjudged the uprisings by focusing on the secular, English-speaking, Westernized protesters who are a natural draw for television. Thousands of Islamists have been released from prisons in Egypt alone, and the ouster of Al Qaeda’s enemy, Mr. Mubarak, will help revitalize every stripe of Islamism, including that of Al Qaeda and its allies, he said.
“The talent of an organization is not just leadership, but taking advantage of opportunities,” Mr. Scheuer said. In Al Qaeda and its allies, he said, “We’re looking over all at a more geographically widespread, probably numerically bigger and certainly more influential movement than in 2001.”
If Al Qaeda faces an uncertain moment, so does the Obama administration. For a decade, the United States has been preoccupied with the Muslim world as a source of terrorist violence — one reason both the Bush and Obama administrations had friendly relations with the authoritarian governments now under fire.
It was such a dominant theme of American policy that even Colonel Qaddafi, the quixotic and brutal Libyan leader who President Obama said Saturday should step down, had drawn American praise as a bulwark against jihadists. A cable from the American Embassy in Tripoli briefing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before a 2008 visit called Libya “a strong partner in the war against terrorism,” noting “excellent” intelligence cooperation and specifically lauding Colonel Qaddafi’s efforts to block the return of Libyan militants from Afghanistan and Iraq and to “blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam.”
Such perceived dividends of cooperation with the likes of Colonel Qaddafi are now history, and that is a point not lost on the C.I.A., the State Department and the White House. As during the United States’ halting adjustment to the fall of Communist governments from 1989 to 1991, officials are scrambling to balance day-to-day crisis management with consideration of how American policy must adjust for the long term.
“There has to be a major rethinking of how the U.S. engages with that part of the world,” said Christopher Boucek, who studies the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We have to make clear that our security no longer comes at the expense of poor governance and no rights for the people in those countries.
“All of the givens,” Mr. Boucek said, “are gone.”
Souad Mekhennet contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.
African migrants targeted in Libya
Rights groups fear dozens killed in violent backlash against supposed Gaddafi-hired mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.
New Tunisia PM appointed
Mohammed Ghannouchi steps down amid continuing unrest that leaves at least five anti-government protesters dead.
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2011 01:13 GMT
If the Saudis revolt, the world’s in trouble
The fate of the global recovery rests on events in Riyadh , says Jeremy Warner.
Be careful what you wish for. After an ambiguous start, Western leaders have broadly welcomed the wave of protest and revolutions sweeping North Africa and parts of the Middle East. But beneath the words of encouragement about people taking charge of their own destiny, there is a growing and vital concern – the security of our oil and gas supplies.
The West’s complicity in supporting the autocratic regimes that characterise many of the big oil-exporting nations is in part explained by the fact that, whatever their sins, they did at least seem to provide stability in the energy markets. That stability, however, has been thrown up in the air by the wave of protest sweeping the region.
Initially, it was assumed that there was a difference between oil-poor Arab nations such as Tunisia and Egypt, where the uprisings have been as much about living standards as anything else, and the much richer Gulf states. That theory was swiftly proved wrong.
In Saudi Arabia, even King Abdullah’s panicky decision to order another multi-billion-dollar splurge of spending on education, healthcare and infrastructure may not be enough to buy off the opposition. People seem to want something more precious than money: freedom.
Whatever happens, speculation about the possibility of major interruptions in supply has sent the already perky oil price bounding higher. At one point yesterday, Brent crude hit $120 a barrel, which in real terms is approaching the sort of peaks we saw in the 1970s.
That’s making policymakers decidedly jumpy. Never mind the effect on inflation, which is already elevated, and the consequent implications for interest rates – by absorbing money which would normally be spent on other things, high oil prices have powerfully negative consequences for demand. Each of the last five global recessions has been preceded by a sharp spike in oil prices. Are we about to see the same thing happen again?
Everyone has been so focused on buttressing the banking system against further catastrophe that they seem to have forgotten about the continued power of oil to shock. Analysts have polarised into
two distinct camps – the alarmist and the broadly sanguine, with little room for argument in between.
Those of a sanguine disposition point to the fact that, although Libya is an important producer, it represents less than 2 per cent of global output. Even if all production were suddenly to cease, the Saudis and other producers should be able to fill the gap from their ample reserves of spare capacity.
This, of course, assumes that the Saudis do indeed possess such spare capacity (many believe they don’t) and that it remains largely unaffected by the unrest. If Saudi falls, then the oil price will go through the roof, and probably stay there for a considerable length of time. That’s the alarmist scenario – and it seems more likely by the day.
Since the oil price shocks of the 1970s, Western economies have very considerably reduced their “energy intensity”, the amount of energy they use for any given unit of economic output. This, in turn, has limited their vulnerability to oil price shocks.
One positive effect of high prices is that they encourage this process. After each recession, the gas guzzlers eventually return to American highways, but always in smaller numbers than before. Most nations are also taking steps to insulate themselves from these shocks by developing alternative sources of energy. If oil consumption per head in the US were to fall to European levels, it would reduce world demand by a quantity approximately equal to Saudi’s entire output.
But these things take time. And while energy intensity is falling in the West, it’s surging in the developing world. Technology transfer ought to mean that emerging markets such as China will reach peak energy intensity at a much earlier stage of their development than the industrial pioneers of the West did – but even so, the peak is still some decades off, and in the meantime demand will keep on growing.
Most models that predict the effect of rising oil prices on economic output have always struck me as fairly meaningless. To say that for every $10 the price increases, 0.5 per cent gets knocked off global GDP, doesn’t tell you much – what matters is the speed with which prices rise and the time they stay high. The damage to confidence caused by a fast-rising oil price tends to have a much greater impact on demand, particularly in the US, where the price of petrol is a key determinant of overall spending.
After a very rapid increase, of the sort we’ve seen in the past year, there comes a point when consumers collectively decide to go on strike and stop spending. We are, I fear, perilously close to that tipping point. With advanced economies still struggling to emerge from the financial crisis, another oil price shock is just what we don’t need right. So now, everything depends on Saudi Arabia.
If it succumbs to the contagion, or fails to compensate for lost production in Libya by boosting its output, then we may have to wave the global recovery goodbye.