Lowdown on Libya
Libya spent more than 40 years under the erratic rule of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi before apro-democracy revolt pushed him from power in August, bringing an end to a six month struggle. In February of this year, the unrest sweeping through much of the Arab world erupted in several Libyan cities (specifically, Benghazi, Mizrata, and Zentan) and swiftly spread to the capital of Tripoli. Colonel Qaddafi—who notoriously travels with a cadre of female “Amazonian” bodyguards that he and his sons reportedly raped, abused, and then discarded—lashed out with unspeakable violence. However, the rebel opposition managed to cobble together the semblance of a transitional government, field a makeshift army, and portray itself to the West and Libyans as a viable alternative to Colonel Qaddafi’s repressive rule. The Arab League, European Union, and the United States have all recognized the Rebel Transitional Council as the official government of Libya.
On August 23, Qaddafi’s forces gave way to an assault on Tripoli after several days of bloody urban street fighting. The rebels have been struggling to restore order to Tripoli, while Qaddafi’s whereabouts remain unknown. After a lifetime under his corrupt and oppressive regime, Libyans report that they still feel uneasy laughing at the ubiquitous anti-Qaddafi graffiti covering the walls of burnt out buildings in Tripoli depicting him with the moniker Sharfufa, or “Frizz-head,” a reference to his unkempt and bushy hairstyle—a source of widespread contempt among assiduously groomed Libyans. On September 6, a convoy of high-ranking Libyan officials fled to Niger, but reports indicate that Qaddafi was not among them. He has said recently, “Democracy means permanent rule,” and “I will stay in Libya until I die, or until the end of time God allows me to live,” so it seems unlikely that he will relinquish any semblance of power over the country.
While the rebels struggle to maintain control (with mixed results: they have yet to overcome loyalist resistance in BaniWalid and Surt, and have recently taken to imprisoning darker skinned African migrants on the dubious claim that they are Qaddafi mercenaries), reporters and human rights advocates have uncovered troves of documents amassed by Colonel Qaddafi’s intelligence agency. The documents show that the relationship between Libya and the CIA as well as Britain’s M-16 was much closer than previously imagined. The CIA sent terrorism suspects to Libya at least eight times, despite the country’s reputation for torture.
One of these men, Abdel Hakim Belaj, is now in charge of the military committee responsible for keeping order in Tripoli. He says, however that there are no hard feelings towards the US.
“ Now we are in Libya, and we want to look forward to a peaceful future. I do not want revenge.” —KW
Stalemate in Yemen
Although it is Egypt that dominates mainstream headlines, it has been more than six months since protesters took to the streets in Yemen to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country since 1978. In April, there was hope that the situation might be improving when Saleh agreed to a plan that would turn over power to a national unity government. However, violence between government forces and tribal militias resumed in May after Saleh repeatedly evaded signing the agreement, balking on three separate occasions.
On June 3, Saleh was wounded in a bombing attack on the presidential palace when a mortar shell or rocket struck the mosque just yards away from where he was praying. Saleh blamed the attack on the Ahmar family, the opposition leaders of the tribal militia that has been fighting government troops (a spokesman for the Ahmars denied responsibility). The president was rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment, where he remained until his hospital release on August 7. Since his release, the president has made several television appearances in which he seems relatively healthy. He has yet to return to the country, despite vowing repeatedly, “See you soon in the capital, Sana.” On Monday, Yemen’s official news agency, Saba, published a decree signed by Saleh granting his deputy the authority to negotiate with opponents for a transfer of power.
Meanwhile, the country remains in a protracted stalemate. Within Yemen, the opposition seems increasingly divided about how to move forward, and the political calamity has led to an economic crisis. Food prices continue to rise, shortages of electricity, water, and fuel are widespread, and public services are nearly nonexistent.
Earlier this week, the U.N. issued a report that the Yemeni government has used excessive and deadly force against peaceful protesters, killing hundreds and wounding thousands since the beginning of the year. The report also accused the government of cutting off access to electricity, fuel, and water in attempts to pressure and punish civilians for demonstrations. Hanny Megally, who led the U.N. mission, described the present situation in Yemen to reporters as “a bit of a powder keg waiting to explode…if there’s not immediate help from outside, it could lead to the disintegration of the country and civil war.”
Essam Mohammed, a car salesman who recently transitioned to a career as a taxi driver because of Yemen’s extreme decline in car sales, explained the country’s prospects to the New York Times: “If Ali Abdullah Saleh doesn’t come back, we will have a war. If he does come back, we will have a war…If the situation stays where it is, we’ll have problems.” —ES
A fairy tale image of revolution has emerged from the success of the Arab Spring uprisings. Yet in Syria, the reality of the slow grind of revolution has settled in as protesters and administrators remain locked in a stalemate that continues to inflict casualties on civilians and military personnel alike. Since March, President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed a wave of violence on street protesters—slaughtering many and detaining others for torture—with the death toll approaching 2,600, according to a U.N. report. Today, the revolution stands at a precarious moment—President Assad refuses to resign; discontent with his authoritarian rule continues to fester.
In August, after tip-toeing around Assad’s violence and calling for reform, the Obama administration joined many world leaders in asserting that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Earlier this month, the European Union banned all imports of Syrian oil, inflicting serious damage on a Syrian economy already bleeding from massive decreases in tourist revenue. Perhaps most shockingly, Iranian president and longtime Syrian ally Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for an end to Assad’s violent crackdown on protests last Thursday. “A military solution is never the right solution,” Ahmadinejad reported without a trace of irony.
Of course, this announcement stems less from Ahmadinejad’s concern for human rights than his from own agenda: an opportunity to bolster his image in a global community that continues to vilify his political program; a fear that a successful revolution in Syria would put Assad out of office and establish Sunni rule in Syria—a threat to Iran’s Shiite majority.
The religious component of the Syrian uprising is the key to understanding its violence. Assad, along with most of the military and political elites of the old guard, is a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Muslims. Syrian protesters, by and large, are Sunnis, and the ethnic conflict is the fuel to the political unrest whose flames continue to grow today.
Despite the difficulties it faces, the Syrian uprising represents a watershed moment in the country’s history as it is the first major revolt since 1982, when Hafez al-Assad—father of the current Syrian President—faced an increasingly violent Muslim Brotherhood. Then, much like today, al-Assad moved swiftly to quell protests, killing over 10,000 Syrians and destroying much of the city of Hama. This method appears to have set a precedent for his son, who also focused his military efforts on the city of Hama, pushing much of the revolutionary spirit underground. Whereas in spring, images of large-scale street protest in Hama proliferated, the summer has seen empty streets visited only by the occasional late-night band of brave revolutionaries.
In response, Syrians are begging the international community to recognize human rights violations on display in the streets of Hama and Homs, which is known as the “capital of revolution.” Many Syrians were initially reluctant to look to the international community for assistance—fearing the possibility that their revolution might be co-opted by the political and economic interests of the West—but the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi at the hands of Western forces has pushed many to see the advantages of international aid. Fortunately, their cries are beginning to be heard, as the U.N. is now taking steps to add “teeth” to sanctions on Syria.
Nonetheless, even in the face of widespread conflict, Assad has maintained a stranglehold on the center of Syrian life, Damascus. Even as the destruction mounts throughout the country, the Syrian military has succeeded in keeping conflict away from its capital. The revolutionary spirit in Damascus is palpable, and the tension is beginning to manifest itself—in coffee shops, in salons, in the home. But on the surface, Damascus is business as usual, and it is on to this last bastion of stability that Assad continues to cling. He has maintained a tight control on the media’s influence in Syria, largely disconnecting Damascus from the revolutionary sentiment across the country. “Everything is normal, just don’t watch Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya,” one Damascus resident told the New York Times. “They are spreading lies. Watch only Syrian channels to learn the truth.” For now, it appears Damascus belongs to Assad, but if violence engulfs the city, Assad and his regime may have nowhere left to hide. —DA