Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring’

Dexter Filkins: On the Ground in Yemen

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Tawakkol Karman, who led the protests in Sanaa, is one of the few grass-roots women leaders in the Middle East.
Here’s a Dexter Filkins article on Yemen and his Fresh Air interview on the same topic.

This is a little out of date, but it’s been on my To Do List and since we may be having a “regime change” there, I thought I’d post it.

This article has a number of themes that struck me. The first is how much of a tribal society many of these Middle Eastern states are, which I talked about in my last post.

The other theme is how easily democratic movements can be hijacked by extremist forces.

In his article, Filkins profiles Tawakul Karman, a mother of three who has helped lead the democratic protest movement in Yemen. On his recent trip to Yemen, Filkins visited Karman’s house in Sana, and noted that she had four photos on her mantle: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Hillary Clinton.

One of the stories Filkins tells is how, attending one of the protests that occur regularly on the Karman’s Sanaa University campus, he saw a prominent Yemeni Islamist, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, take the stage. Zindani praised the democratic youth movement’s struggles, but then proceeded to say where he thought would all lead. “The caliphate is coming! The caliphate is coming!” he  cried.

Karman was furious, saying that the protest leaders had a big argument about inviting Zindani, since “this is a youth movement, not a religious one,” but this observation leads him to a problem at the heart of the Arab Spring: 

Tvhe demonstrators who had gathered outside Sanaa University faced a dilemma: on their own, they did not represent the aspirations of Yemen’s twenty-three million people, but, the more the movement grew, the more Islamist it threatened to become. Seventy per cent of Yemenis live in rural areas, and most are deeply religious.

Glenn Beck’s paranoid rantings about Labor movements colluding with Islamist movements aside, the real issue here is how easily these democratic movements can be taken over by extremist elements as they expand from the universities and cities to the countryside. This is going to be an issue throughout the Middle East.

In a recent article in, Fred Kaplan cites a study by political scientists, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder which lays out the conditions for smooth and successful democratization:

These conditions include a literate population, a fairly prosperous and diverse economy, potentially democratic institutions (a functioning judiciary, free press, honest police, etc.), and a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.

This is not good news for Arab democracies in general and it’s even worse news for Yemen, a tribal society that has none of the above. When the Arab Spring protests started I thought that an Egypt-like uprising in Yemen could be the most dangerous for US interests. Not only is Yemen in a strategically critical location, it is also the headquarters of what is considered by many in the intelligence community to be the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As much as I want to support the democratic aspirations of people like Tawakul Karman, we need to tread lightly here. The end result of this movement might not only be bad for the United States: it might also be bad for the democratic activists themselves.

Taking a Position On the Libya Engagement

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

I’ve been riveted to the events in Libya, and while I’m not convinced of Andrew Sullivan’s view that bloggers have to take a position, I certainly feel some self imposed obligation to do so.

So, while I admit that this is a tough call for me and I’m not at all sure that my position will be vindicated, I’m inclined to support the president’s actions so far.

That being said, this is a tough call in general and deserves a full analysis:

On the con side, there is the obvious: this would be the third war in the Muslim world that we are engaged in; there’s not a clear, immediate, vital national interest in Libya; we know very little about the rebel forces, and there’s a good argument to be made that, in a time of fiscal crisis, we probably shouldn’t be spending money on more foreign entanglements. But there is such a thing as moral credibility and and it makes sense for us to not let Qaddafi set the precedent that overwhelming force is the best way to put down the “Arab spring” movements. Given that we were slow to respond in Egypt and we’re giving the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies a pass for geopolitical reasons, we would certainly have lost all credibility with the nascent democracy movements in the region (not to mention the rest of the world) if we were to stand by while Qaddafi’s troops overwhelmed Benghazi and meted out a very public revenge on the rebels.

The French and the British were clearly out front on this intervention, and given that, I think the Obama’s Administration’s approach was pretty solid. They made it clear that (a) they wouldn’t act without a request from either the Arab League or the African Union (b) they wanted to get UN approval for their action (c) Arab or African forces would have to be involved the operations, and (d) the U.S. would not take the lead throughout the campaign. The last condition was particularly interesting, given that we have almost always have taken the lead in Western interventions for the past 60 years. In effect, Obama said to the French and British: if you want to do this, we will take the lead in the first few weeks, but then you guys are taking over.

When I initially heard all of these conditions, I thought that they were just roadblocks that the Administration put up in order to kill the idea of intervention. But surprisingly, all of these conditions were met. In an unprecedented step, the Arab League requested Western intervention in the Middle East; China and Russia agreed not to veto a relatively broad resolution authorizing the use of force “to protect civilians”; Qatar and the United Arab Emirates agreed to contribute a token number of fighters to enforce the no-fly zone, and the French and British agreed to take the lead on enforcement after an initial bombardment by US forces.

As President Obama said in his weekly address today:

The progress we’ve made over the past seven days demonstrates how the international community should work, with many nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding international law.

As usual, US led military forces performed brilliantly and the initial operations have worked to level the playing field between the rebels and Qaddafi’s forces, even allowing the rebels to roll back some of Qaddafi’s gains in the past two days.  

Now with the initial air strikes out of the way, the coalition faces the tougher issues, many of which are rooted in the compromises that had to be made in order to get the international community to buy in. For instance, while everyone knows that the real objective is to force Qaddafi from power, the UN resolution only calls for the “protection of civilians.” While the air strikes have stopped Qaddafi’s military from advancing on the rebels, almost everyone agrees that this mostly untrained band of rebels will need outside help to take Tripoli, and while the UN has imposed an arms embargo on Libya, it’s clear that the rebels will need additional armaments and training in order to prevail against Qaddafi. In addition, the French have said that ”The destruction of Qaddafi’s military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months”–but without a capitulation by Qaddafi or mass defection of his forces (not out of the question, but dangerous to base a war plan on)–they’re fooling themselves if they think that the rebels can capture Tripoli in a number of weeks.

Ideally, we should rely on our allies to arm and equip the rebels. While there was some initial debate about whether this would violate the UN arms embargo on Libya, there have been recent reports that coalition members are actively pursuing this option.  The French have some experience operating in Qaddafi’s Libya and the Egyptians are already reported to be supplying the rebels with small arms. At the same time, coalition air power can provide a safe haven in rebel controlled territory for the training of troops (either by allied special forces, or by mercenaries) so that the rebels will eventually be able to march to Tripoli and take on Qaddafi’s forces. Clearly this violates the spirit of the UN resolution, but it is hard to believe that anyone thought that the endgame the coalition would be pursuing in Libya would be anything but regime change.

To be clear, this course is fraught with peril and plenty of things could go wrong along the way: evening the playing field could lead to a prolonged standoff between Qaddafi and rebels. A rebel victory could produce a weak central government, setting off a civil war. In the event of either outcome, Libya could become a breeding ground for terrorism. Alternately, a rebel government itself could easily be hijacked by Islamist forces (which are already a part of the governing council and the military). Our allies could tire of the mission, leaving the United States holding the bag, or an excessive focus on Libya could lead us to lose focus(ala Bush in 2003) on the more pressing issues throughout the Middle East (from Egypt to Yemen).

But failure to support the rebels also has its downsides. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that the the future of the Middle East (for better or worse) will be shaped by democracy. It may take decades to unfold, or it may happen over the next few years, but if we don’t support it where we can, we significantly increase the chances that whatever type of democracy emerges will view the United States not as the beacon of freedom that we see ourselves for, but as the imperialist power that chose political stability over democratic values when the fate of their countries hung in the balance.

Arab Spring Spreads Across the Middle East

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Juan Cole on the protests spreading across the Middle East:

Friday saw major protests in Syria, Jordan and Yemen, along with continued fighting in Libya. The Arab Spring has not breathed its last gasp, but rather seems to be getting a second wind. Protesters are crossing red lines set by governments and risking being shot. They know that movements are watered with the blood of martyrs. One of the major protests, in Deraa, Syria, on Friday was actually a funeral procession. But the Baathist regime created dozens more martyrs in response to being challenged. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have admitted he is outgoing, though he is bargaining with the crowds about the timing and circumstances.