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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Libya, Tunisia

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  • Zafar Khan
    LIBYA Libya conflict: Where is Col Muammar Gaddafi? By Gordon Corera Security correspondent, BBC News 25 August 2011
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 30, 2011

      Libya conflict: Where is Col Muammar Gaddafi?
      By Gordon Corera
      Security correspondent, BBC News
      25 August 2011


      Libyan rebels as well as Nato officials will be hoping that the hunt for Col Muammar Gaddafi does not turn into a protracted affair.

      UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox has confirmed that intelligence assets will be deployed to try to stop that happening.

      These range from agents on the ground trying to pick up the latest reports and rumours, through to satellites watching for any convoys or unusual movement in the desert, as well as the interception of communications to see if any supporters or Col Gaddafi himself gives anything away.

      Mr Fox and officials have declined to comment on reports that the SAS has also been ordered to help with the search on the ground.

      A tip-off may still be the best hope of finding him though.

      Col Gaddafi released a message earlier this week, and that will also be analysed for any clues. He claimed he had come out undercover on the streets of Tripoli. That is impossible to verify.

      Rebels had said that there are indications he is in or around Tripoli, but no-one seems sure, and there has long been speculation that he might head to his hometown of Sirte to make his last stand.

      Most wanted

      Others have speculated that he might use underground tunnels in Tripoli to either hide or make his way out of the city secretly.

      Some believe he may have headed south to sympathetic tribes, where he also might be able to leave the country.

      If he did manage to evade capture, it would make it harder for there to be a sense of victory and for a new government to get on with its work. His survival could also prove to be a cause for a resistance to rally.

      The precedent that worries officials is Iraq. There, Saddam Hussein managed to hide out for eight months, and his loyalists began to organise themselves, quickly being joined by al-Qaeda and other radical groups.

      The failure to capture Saddam was an open sore for the US but, equally, catching him did not end the violence.

      Hiding is possible for long periods. Osama Bin Laden proved that with close to a decade of being America's most wanted after 9/11.

      Hiding effectively requires some kind of support network and ideally a sympathetic population.

      But the more someone who is in hiding tries to communicate or do anything, the more likely they are eventually to be found by those looking for them.

      Col Gaddafi, mercurial and unpredictable, has always been focused on his own power and survival. What he intends to do next is as unclear as where he is.

      Gaddafi family members flee to Algeria
      Toppled Libyan leader's wife, his daughter and two of his sons in Algiers, as NTC says it will seek their extradition.
      Last Modified: 30 Aug 2011 07:24


      Misrata rebels defy Libya's new regime
      City refuses to accept appointment by National Transitional Council of former Gaddafi ally as Tripoli security chief
      Chris Stephen in Misrata
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 August 2011 09.40 BST


      Charred remains of massacre victims found in Tripoli
      Regime troops killed 53 people in a warehouse and then burnt the bodies, say local people
      By David Randall and Jonathan Owen
      Sunday, 28 August 2011


      The terrible price many Libyan people have paid to be free of Colonel Gaddafi is becoming plain. Yesterday, only a day after more than 120 decomposing bodies were found in a Tripoli hospital, a British television team filmed the charred remains of an estimated 53 people in a burnt-out warehouse in the south of the city.

      Stuart Ramsay of Sky News was led to the building by residents who had made the discovery. Inside was a scene of mass cremation: more than four dozen corpses of what were once human beings, their ages and genders impossible to tell. Ribcages, skulls and other bones lay in a blackened mess. Local people told of how the bodies of perhaps as many as 100 others lay nearby, including those of two soldiers with their hands behind their backs who had been executed for refusing to fire on the victims of the massacre, be they regime critics, civilians, or other refusenik soldiers.

      The residents said they had been alerted by shooting some days ago, but when they tried to approach they were told by regime snipers that they would be shot if they did not retreat. After the Gaddafi men left, they went inside the warehouse, which is next to a military base. They said that in the past few weeks, they had seen people digging at night and the sound of gunfire. In the morning, the holes would be filled in.

      But this is, like all civil wars, an exceptionally brutal conflict, with blame on both sides, and victims everywhere. The bodies keep piling up – civilians caught in crossfire, fighters lying where they fell, and the executed of both sides, including men from sub-Saharan Africa who may have been Gaddafi mercenaries, or just some poor wretch gone north to find work.

      The first test for the National Transitional Council will be to halt these cold-blooded killings, and also, if they wish to rely on British and American support, ensure that their upper ranks are free from association with al-Qa'ida or its sympathisers.

      Yesterday, The Independent on Sunday learned that the rebel military commander behind the successful assault on Tripoli had fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and was an Islamist terror suspect interrogated by the CIA. Abdelhakim Belhadj, the newly appointed commander of the Tripoli Military Council is a former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – banned by Britain and the US as a terrorist organisation after the 9/11 attacks.

      The 45-year-old first went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, where he fought against occupying Soviet forces. Arrested in Malaysia in 2004, he was interrogated by the CIA in Thailand before being extradited to Libya, where he was released from prison last year; he has since renounced violence. Mr Belhadj has become a hero of the Libyan revolution – and ally of the West.

      A former comrade-in-arms insisted the rebel leader was not a future enemy in waiting. Noman Benotman, once a senior LIFG figure, and now senior analyst at the Quilliam think-tank, said: "I strongly believe he is capable of rationalising even the rogue elements within the rebels. He will do everything possible to prevent chaos."

      He insisted Mr Belhadj "was never ever convinced by al-Qa'ida". But he added: "If the West delays supporting the NTC it runs a high risk that the capital and maybe the country will start to gradually drag into a situation of chaos." If this happens, "al-Qa'ida will not need any invitations or permissions to enter". The former LIFG member conceded there was a risk that some of the rebels could turn against the West. But he added: "I don't think there is a real or significant threat."

      Founded in the 1990s by Libyan fighters returning from Afghanistan, the LIFG merged with al-Qa'ida in 2007, and in March 2011 renamed itself the Libyan Islamic Movement. Hundreds of its members are taking part in the fighting in Libya.

      Mr Benotman said Islamists make up a large proportion of rebel forces. "About 20 per cent of the rebel forces are soldiers and officers that defected; within the 80 per cent I believe 30 per cent of them are Islamists."

      Fighters from an Islamist brigade were responsible for the shooting of General Abdel Fattah Younes, commander of rebel forces, earlier this year, according to Mr Benotman. "They are an isolated Islamist brigade that has been dismantled," he said.

      Qaddafi forces killed detainees, says survivor


      Tripoli hospital turned into 'mass morgue'


      Gaddafi's intelligence base seized
      Al Jazeera gains access to what used to be the intelligence headquarters of Libyan leader.
      Last Modified: 25 Aug 2011 20:43


      Trauma at Tripoli's Abu Salim hospital
      Hospital in the Libyan capital is scene of desperation for civilians, rebel fighters, and Gaddafi loyalists.
      Last Modified: 26 Aug 2011 10:44


      Libyan rebels seize key border post
      As fighters consolidate their control, the UN says security remained a major concern with fears of reprisal attacks.
      Last Modified: 28 Aug 2011 06:22


      Gaddafi's desperate bid to save regime revealed
      Secret documents detail clandestine lobbying of Nato and even Obama following fear of full-scale US invasion
      Luke Harding in Tripoli
      guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 August 2011 21.19 BST


      Survivor tells of mass killing
      Only known survivor of summary execution carried out by Gaddafi's troops says he had no links to the rebels.
      Evan Hill in Libya Last Modified: 25 Aug 2011 14:08


      Desperate Colonel Gaddafi calls on women and children to fight rebels
      by Chris Hughes, Daily Mirror 26/08/2011


      Robert Fisk: History repeats itself, with mistakes of Iraq rehearsed afresh
      With Gaddafi at large, a guerrilla war eroding the new powers is inevitable
      Thursday, 25 August 2011


      Doomed always to fight the last war, we are recommitting the same old sin in Libya.

      Muammar Gaddafi vanishes after promising to fight to the death. Isn't that just what Saddam Hussein did? And of course, when Saddam disappeared and US troops suffered the very first losses from the Iraqi insurgency in 2003, we were told – by the US proconsul Paul Bremer, the generals, diplomats and the decaying television "experts" – that the gunmen of the resistance were "die-hards", "dead-enders" who didn't realise that the war was over. And if Gaddafi and his egg-headed son remain at large – and if the violence does not end – how soon will we be introduced once more to the "dead-enders" who simply will not understand that the lads from Benghazi are in charge and that the war is over? Indeed, within 15 minutes – literally – of my writing the above words (2pm yesterday), a Sky News reporter had re-invented "die-hards" as a definition for Gaddafi's men. See what I mean?

      Needless to say, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds as far as the West is concerned. No one is disbanding the Libyan army and no one is officially debarring the Gaddafi-ites from a future role in their country. No one is going to make the same mistakes we made in Iraq. And no boots are on the ground. No walled-off, sealed-in Green Zone Western zombies are trying to run the future Libya. "It's up to the Libyans," has become the joyful refrain of every State Department/ Foreign Office/Quai d'Orsay factotum. Nothing to do with us!

      But, of course, the massive presence of Western diplomats, oil-mogul representatives, highly paid Western mercenaries and shady British and French servicemen – all pretending to be "advisers" rather than participants – is the Benghazi Green Zone. There may (yet) be no walls around them but they are, in effect, governing Libya through the various Libyan heroes and scallywags who have set themselves up as local political masters. We can overlook the latters' murder of their own commanding officer – for some reason, no one mentions the name of Abdul Fatah Younes any more, though he was liquidated in Benghazi only a month ago – but they can only survive by clinging to our Western umbilicals.

      Of course, this war is not the same as our perverted invasion of Iraq. Saddam's capture only provoked the resistance to infinitely more attacks on Western troops – because those who had declined to take part in the insurgency for fear that the Americans would put Saddam back in charge of Iraq now had no such inhibitions. But Gaddafi's arrest along with Saif's would undoubtedly hasten the end of pro-Gaddafi resistance to the rebels. The West's real fear – right now, and this could change overnight – should be the possibility that the author of the Green Book has made it safely through to his old stomping ground in Sirte, where tribal loyalty might prove stronger than fear of a Nato-backed Libyan force.

      Sirte, where Gaddafi, at the very start of his dictatorship, turned the region's oil fields into the first big up-for-grabs international dividend for foreign investors after his 1969 revolution, is no Tikrit. It is the site of his first big African Union conference, scarcely 16 miles from the place of his own birth, a city and region that benefited hugely from his 41-year rule. Strabo, the Greek geographer, described how the dots of desert settlements due south of Sirte made Libya into a leopard skin. Gaddafi must have liked the metaphor. Almost 2,000 years later, Sirte was pretty much the hinge between the two Italian colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

      And in Sirte the "rebels" were defeated by the "loyalists" in this year's six-month war; we shall soon, no doubt, have to swap these preposterous labels – when those who support the pro-Western Transitional National Council will have to be called loyalists, and pro-Gaddafi rebels turn into the "terrorists" who may attack our new Western-friendly Libyan administration. Either way, Sirte, whose inhabitants are now supposedly negotiating with Gaddafi's enemies, may soon be among the most interesting cities in Libya.

      So what is Gaddafi thinking now? Desperate, we believe him to be. But really? We have chosen many adjectives for him in the past: irascible, demented, deranged, magnetic, tireless, obdurate, bizarre, statesmanlike (Jack Straw's description), cryptic, exotic, bizarre, mad, idiosyncratic and – most recently – tyrannical, murderous and savage. But in his skewed, shrewd view of the Libyan world, Gaddafi would do better to survive and live – to continue a civil-tribal conflict and thus consume the West's new Libyan friends in the swamp of guerrilla warfare – and slowly sap the credibility of the new "transitional" power.

      But the unpredictable nature of the Libyan war means that words rarely outlive their writing. Maybe Gaddafi hides in a basement tunnel beneath the Rixos Hotel – or lounges in one of Robert Mugabe's villas. I doubt it. Just so long as no one tries to fight the war before this one.


      Tunisia: Women's rights hang in the balance
      While Tunisia's revolution successfully ousted Ben Ali, women's rights could now be in jeopardy.
      Yasmine Ryan Last Modified: 20 Aug 2011 08:49


      For 55 years, Tunisia celebrated Women's Day every August 13, representing the push for gender equality that has been one of the hallmarks of the North African nation's post-colonial era.

      Women were active players in the uprising that ended the rule of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, and many hope that event will translate into a more visible role in the country’s soon-to-be democratic political life.

      Yet some are worried that the rights women have enjoyed for the past five decades might soon be swept away by the tide of social conservatism that has emerged in the wake of the uprising.

      "We know that the former regime took advantage of women's rights," says Faiza Skandrani, who founded an organisation called Equality and Parity shortly after the uprising.

      Despite the legal rights, women suffered from the same climate of fear and oppression as men, she says.

      Now that the old regime is out, activists are hoping that this will mean women will become politically empowered and active members of the new democracy.

      Not everyone shares the same vision of what the new Tunisia should look like, and Skandrani says that women's rights activists are facing a conservative backlash that is drowning out other perspectives in the media.

      "It is very difficult for us to have our voices heard, whether on the TV or the radio," she says. For women and men alike, everything hinges on the election of the constituent assembly on October 23.

      'Rights' in the balance

      That assembly will be tasked with writing a new constitution and choosing what form of political system the country will have in the future, rewriting the ground rules that have piloted political life in the years immediately after Tunisia won full independence from the French.

      Al-Nahda, the Islamist party led by Rachid Ghannouchi that was outlawed under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is one of the most well-organised political movements. It enjoys strong support, particularly in rural areas.

      Ghannouchi has long called for a moderate, pro-democratic brand of political Islam, and has given many interviews promising that fundamental humanism of the previous regime is not up for debate.

      "I think some values which were values since independence are accepted by all parties … [including] Arab-Muslim identity [which] is accepted even by the Communists. And women's rights are accepted by all sides, among them Islamists," he told me in an interview in Doha, a few weeks after the revolution.

      But some secularist critics say that Al-Nahda is sending mixed messages, playing to more conservative segments of the population even as the party seeks to win over more progressive voters.

      Cherifa Abdelhafidh, a mother of three and a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, says she is scared of how Al-Nahda, the country's most influential Islamist party, might leverage its newly found political might.

      The 41-year-old, who lives with her husband and daughters in the industrial coastal city of Sfax, does not agree with the conservative agenda that she believes Al-Nahda will pursue if they are given the chance.

      "I think they are aggressive. Islam doesn't say that a woman must stay at home, that she shouldn't work," she says.

      She feels that politicians from Al-Nahda are not being clear about what they represent, and that they are using Islam for political aims.

      "That's why I'm uneasy. They are taking two [conflicting] stances, to build their popularity," she says.

      Abdelhafidh battled with conservatism in her own family. She married her husband when she was 16, and her father-in-law forced her to quit school.

      He forbade her from working, and it was only after he passed away did she begin her job as an administrator at a local high school. Abdelhafidh's husband, who has very different values from his father, has no problem with her working.

      To the contrary, the couple struggled to make ends meet on a single income.

      "It's bad for women, and for men too," she says. She supports religious freedoms, and thinks the state should allow polygamy.

      But the Sfaxian says she plans to cast her vote for one of the country's two most well-known centre-left, secular parties - either Ettajdid or the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

      New freedoms?

      Other women, meanwhile, see in Al-Nahda the potential to gain new freedoms they have never had before.

      Manel Sekmani, a 24-year-old who is studying for a masters in genetics in Tunis, says the most significant barrier to entering the workforce is discrimination against devoted Muslims such as herself.

      Al-Nahda is the party, she says, that will challenge the prejudices encouraged by previous governments and allow women more, rather than less, liberty.

      "Al-Nahda will protect women's rights," she says. "I was derided during the time of Ben Ali and I don't want another government like that."

      Like Abdelhafidh, the student rejects conservative interpretations of Islam. In her view, however, Al-Nahda is clear on its progressive values and is not calling for women to stay at home.

      "Women who don't wear headscarves already have freedoms, and those freedoms cannot be taken away from them." Sekmani does not want to see strict Islamic law introduced, but rather a hybrid legal system that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society.

      "We live in an Islamic country, but it is also a modern society," she says.

      The young woman's desire to see a fusion of secular and Islamic law, leaving existing rights intact, is similar to what some of Al-Nahda's most vocal critics are calling for.

      She rejects the idea that voters like her are being misled about what Al-Nahda really stands for.

      Indeed, many of Al-Nahda's most active members are female, and, Farida Laabidi, a member of the party's executive branch, says they have some clout within the movement.

      "Many thousands of Al-Nahda activists were imprisoned [during the previous regime] and it was their wives who worked to support their families," she says.

      Laabidi denies that her party is encouraging women to quit their jobs.

      "Women must participate in the economic, social and political life of the country," she says.

      Rights in jeopardy

      The tension between those who want to keep politics and religion separate, and those who would like to see Islam become more integral to the Tunisian state is hardly new to the North African nation.

      At the dawn of independence, even before President Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy and introduced the present constitution, the anti-colonial leader gave Tunisian women legal rights that he hoped would break the shackles of tradition.

      Bourguiba introduced the "Personal Status Code" (CSP by its French acronym) in 1956.

      Women were given the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, to earn equal wages to men and to divorce.

      Polygamy was outlawed and a woman's consent became a requirement for marriage.

      Then came the legalisation of abortion in 1961, at time when it was still a taboo topic in many European countries, including France.

      In a 1966 reportage on Tunisian women - marking the tenth anniversary of the CSP - the former president said: "Beneath men, who were victims of the colonial regime, were women, who were also victims of an appalling situation ... which came from old habits, traditions, which have a sacred character, which meant that women themselves were resigned to their fate," he said.

      The video shows him lifting rural women's veils, a characteristic act that represents emancipation for some, while showing a lack of respect for religious beliefs to others.

      Until now, critics of the progressive stance on gender equality have been forced into silence.

      Under Ben Ali in particular, most prominent Islamists had to chose between prison and exile.

      The phenomenon that is stoking fears in some quarters is the increasingly conservative tone that, they say, is encroaching media, mosques and public discussions.

      With freedom of speech, topics that have long been taboo in the public arena, such as polygamy and the argument that women should stay at home as a solution to unemployment, are suddenly arousing widespread debate.

      And women are largely being excluded from the discussions.

      "There are many political debates taking place, but few women are given the chance to participate," says Ahlem Belhaj, president of Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD by its French acronym).

      "There is a lack of any debates about women's rights, certainly not in terms of how to take them forward," she says.

      "Partly, it's a reaction to the way the former regime used women's rights, and partly it's a concession to the Islamists."

      There have also been a series of murky violent incidents linked to fringe Salafist activists, including attacks on a cinema screening a film about secularism in June and on a police station in the town of Menzel Bourghiba in July.

      Al-Nahda was not involved in these events but neither did the party side squarely with secular groups who have come under attack from the ultra-conservatives.

      "Attacks on our liberty have already begun," Belhaj says.

      "Every time [there is an incident] Al-Nahda says it isn't them, but exactly who it is, I don't know."

      Laabidi says that Al-Nahda is a party based on dialogue and does not condone violence.

      She stops short of supporting the showing of films like the one that the activists deemed an offence to Islam, however, saying it is not the time to raise such divisive questions.

      "Freedom of expression has its limits," she says.

      Activists say the trend is linked to the emergence of a long-suppressed sector of Tunisian society that wants to cast off the perceived Western influences in favour of a stronger Arab-Islamic identity, looking east to the conservative Gulf countries, rather than north.

      This viewpoint is founded on a total rejection of Bourguiba's vision, and is about taking society in a very different direction.

      Since the late 1980s, Ghannouchi has declared himself in favour of maintaining the CSP, given its integral place in contemporary Tunisian society.

      Whether the confusion among many Tunisians about Al-Nahda's programme is the result of misinformation against the party, its own deliberate political strategy or simply fear born of a lack of information depends on who you ask.

      "There are no contradictions. I believe we are clear about our position on women," Laabidi says, arguing that much of the fear is based on groundless speculation. "It is too early to judge us on our intentions."

      For Skandrani, however, there is a deliberate doublespeak.

      "They have a double discourse," she says.

      In one example of the type of statement that can be interpreted in a number of ways, a video posted to his party's Facebook page shows Ghannouchi explaining how, in his view, the institution of marriage has been denigrated since independence.

      "The problem in Tunisia is that a young man is unable to marry even a single woman, let alone many wives," he says in response to a question about polygamy.

      "The regimes under Bourguiba and Ben Ali have destroyed our society, and now you don't find many children in our schools," he continues - arguing that many schools have been forced to close because of "a drop in reproduction caused by misguided social polices".

      Samir Dilou, Al-Nahda's spokesperson, called polygamy a "fundamental principle" of his party's political programme in an interview with Investir en Tunisie published on June 1.

      "We are determined to add this right to the Tunisian Constitution," he told the website.

      In response to the controversy that followed, Dilou released a statement arguing he had been misquoted and that the party had no intention of legalising polygamy.

      The outsider has no way to judge whether it is Dilou or the journalist who is being dishonest - another example of the type of incident that is leading to confusion over Al-Nahda's position.

      As Laabidi argues, it is impossible to judge Al-Nahda without the party having any track record in power.

      And whether political parties are the driving force behind the groundswell of religious conservatism is another question again.

      Framing the debate

      In Sidi Bouzid back in January, a crowd of desperate young men explained their anger over their economic, social and political marginalisation under both Ben Ali and Bourguiba's governments.

      "In Tunis, they are libertines, they have no values," one young man said emphatically, asking not to be named at a time when it was too early to take freedom of speech for granted.

      We were among the first journalists to reach the town where the revolution began and his words were raw, well before the media or opposition parties had kicked in to gear.

      Whoever they vote for, the real test of women's engagement in the political process will be how many of them vote, and their ability to stand alongside men on the campaign trail.

      Those who support gender equality obtained a considerable victory in April, when the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution, a body created to help oversee the transition process, announced that gender parity was an obligation for electoral lists.

      Come October, 50 per cent of candidates fielded by every party must be female. Moreover, the lists must alternate between genders (man-woman-man or woman-man-woman), putting Tunisia ahead of not only the Arab world, but also most other countries.

      The Tunisian Higher Election Authority (ISIE by its French acronym) announced on Tuesday that, of the 3.8 million Tunisians who have voluntarily registered to vote, some 45 per cent were women.

      The figure given to Al Jazeera by the ISIE a week earlier was 37 per cent, suggesting a high number of women enrolled in the last week of inscriptions.

      More than half of the 1.7 million women who signed up are between the ages of 21 and 30.

      So while older Tunisian women are lagging well behind men of their age group, younger women are ensuring that they will partake in the fruits of their engagement with the uprising - and help to frame the limits of the debate.

      Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan
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