After reviewing Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, UN ambassador Susan Rice had one word to describe the Libyan dictator: “delusional.” The sit-down chat between Qaddafi, Amanpour and two British journalists revealed a leader stridently disconnected with the world around him. “They love me. All my people with me, they love me,” he said, as Libyan rebels clashed violently with military for the 11th day. The best moments of the interview come when Amanpour and the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen try to pin him down on basic facts: it gets pretty surreal.
In Geneva today at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to be “held accountable” for his violent suppression of protestors. Qaddafi’s acts, Clinton said, “violate international legal obligations and common decency.” Before departing yesterday, the secretary of state made it clear that Washington is also prepared to give those trying to overthrow the regime “any kind of assistance,” as the U.S. administration wants the bloodshed to end and Qaddafi to get out “as soon as possible.”
Today, the EU decided to impose sanctions on the Libyan regime, including an arms embargo and a targeted asset ban and visa freeze (aimed at Qaddafi’s closest family and associates). U.S. senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman are meanwhile traveling in the regionand calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. Both said that it wasn’t quite time to use ground forces.
Some Senate Republicans, less than enthused by saber-rattling from Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ) on Libya, warned on Monday that sending military aid to anti-Qadaffi rebels could draw the US into all-out war.
“Dependent upon the method of delivery and what we decide to do we could decide to have a war in Libya to join the war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) told reporters, saying he opposed arming the Libyan resistance or imposing a no-fly zone. “You know, people need to be very thoughtful about entering wars without a declaration and without much more congressional scrutiny of what’s involved.”
Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters that a no-fly zone as part of a multinational effort could be effective, but warned that talk of arms shipments was very premature.
“I’m not sure who’s who yet,” he said of the nascent movement to overthrow Muammar Qadaffi. “Anything we can do to expedite his departure and get him off the world stage would be good, but you have to think these things through. One thing I’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to think these things through.”
Fighter jets and ground troops loyal toLibyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi attacked cities held by the rebel forces on Monday, but leaders of the anti-Qaddafi movement dismissed the attacks as ineffective.
The two Libyan MIG-23s took off from near Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte and bombed a number of sites, including a weapons depot and a water pipeline. Troops loyal to Qaddafi were also reportedly shelling the city of Misurata, which is controlled by anti-Qaddafi forces. And in the city of Zawiya, residents said that they rebuffed an attack from pro-Qaddafi militiamen, killing approximately 10 soldiers and capturing around 12 more.
However, there are few signs that the rebels are preparing a force that could threaten Qaddafi’s hold on Tripoli. The security services have brutally suppressed expressions of dissent within the Libyan capital, firing into crowds of demonstrators from the back of pick-up trucks or even ambulances.
The United States, meanwhile, escalated its political and military pressure on the Qaddafi regime by freezing $30 billion of its assets and moving U.S. Navy warships closer to the Libyan coast. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also told reporters that “no option is off the table” in terms of a U.S. response to the crisis, including the implementation of a no-fly zone.
After two weeks of revolution and the deaths of thousands of Libyans, the Obama administration is starting to contemplate military action against the brutal Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The United Nations Security Council has already sanctioned Gadhafi and referred him to the International Criminal Court following his violent suppression of Libya’s revolutionary movement, creating the contours of a hardening international position against Gadhafi. And now most U.S. nationals in Libya have now fled, removing what the Obama administration has considered an impediment to action.
The United States began moving warships toward Libya and froze $30 billion in the country’s assets on Monday as the administration declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration was conferring with allies about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. Such a move would likely be carried out only under a mandate from the United Nations or NATO, but Mrs. Clinton’s blunt confirmation that it was under consideration was clearly intended to ratchet up the pressure on Colonel Qaddafi and his dwindling band of loyalists.
But then some eager anonymous staffers couldn’t resist assuring the Times that this was mostly a bluff (“officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters seeking to overthrow his government”). Thanks, guys.
I asked some Middle East and military gurus what the Obama administration might be up to.
We’ve seen marked changes in the administration’s approach to Libya since U.S. citizens left Libya three days ago. From timidity, to direct calls for Qaddaffi’s departure, to announcing that we would provide direct support to anti-government forces, and now the arrival of warships. This is a rapid escalation. I have serious doubts that this White House would deploy troops on Libyan soil. However, I do see this as a means to enforce a no-fly zone. It could also be a means to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid to areas that NGOs report have been near-impossible to reach. This is also a bit of psychological warfare, of course. The mere threat of US firepower will not be lost on Qaddaffi, who remembers the U.S. bombing raid on Libya, ordered by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, that killed his adopted daughter.
“Psychological warfare” might work better if Obama officials would keep their traps shut.
The situation in Libya with Gaddafi continues to deteriorate:
Deep rifts opened in Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, with Libyan government officials at home and abroad resigning, air force pilots defecting and a bloody crackdown on protest in the capital of Tripoli, where cars and buildings were burned. Gadhafi went on state TV early Tuesday to attempt to show he was still in charge.
Amid reports that Gadhafi fled Tripoli for Venezuela and an inevitable power lunch with Sean Penn, Quadaffi chose an unusual setting to reassure Libya that he was still in the country and in charge. He appeared in a car wearing a Cousin Eddy hat holding an umbrella and speaking into a microphone swiped from Bob Barker
And Haaretz has this account, claiming that Gaddafi is barricaded in his compound:
A Libyan opposition activist and a Tripoli resident say the streets of a restive district in the Libyan capital are littered with the bodies of scores of protesters shot dead by security forces loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gadhafi, who is reported to be barricaded in his compound in the city.
(Must… resist… urge… to make boxing joke…)
…of the Libyan Salvation Front and the resident say Tripoli’s inhabitants are hunkering down at home Tuesday after the killings and warnings by forces loyal to Gadhafi that anyone on the streets would be shot.
Ali, reached in Dubai, and the Tripoli resident say forces loyal to Gadhafi shot at ambulances and some protesters were left bleeding to death. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Western media are largely barred from Libya and the report couldn’t be independently confirmed.
As they say read the whole thing. I am not pleased with that kind of sourcing, but I suspect it’s going to be hard to get reliable accounts of what happened for the next few days.
Meanwhile the New Yorker is already writing the epitaph of the regime. Mmm, I hope I am wrong on this, but that strikes me as jumping the gun. Yes, Gaddafi looks like he is in serious trouble, but it is possible to kill your way out of a thing like this, if your military is sufficiently loyal.
In related news, the National Editor’s Union has issued a statement calling for the ouster of the dictator, if only because no one can figure out how to spell his name. (Yes, that is a joke.)
Not a good week for authoritarians it appears. Of course be careful what you wish for – while we may see one crop of authoritarians shunted to the side, there is no indication that anything other than a different type of authoritarian regime would replace it in many of these places. Change is definitely in the air. But whether that’s finally a “good thing” remains to be seen.
The unfolding situation in Libya has been horrible to behold. No matter how many times we warn that dictators will do what they must to stay in power, it is still shocking to see the images of brutalized civilians which have been flooding al-Jazeera and circulating on the internet. We should not be fooled by Libya’s geographic proximity to Egypt and Tunisia, or guided by the debates over how the United States could best help a peaceful protest movement achieve democratic change. The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act. It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.
By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors. It could also mean a clear declaration that members of the regime and military will be held individually responsible for any future deaths. The U.S. should call for an urgent, immediate Security Council meeting and push for a strong resolution condeming Libya’s use of violence and authorizing targeted sanctions against the regime. Such steps could stand a chance of reversing the course of a rapidly deteriorating situation. An effective international response could not only save many Libyan lives, it might also send a powerful warning to other Arab leaders who might contemplate following suit against their own protest movements.
The Arab Street did not need the US in Egypt, but in LIbya it is a different story entirely. Reports suggest that Gaddafi’s forces have already used heavy equipment and aircraft weapons against protestors. Al Arabiya sources say that bombing of Benghazi will commence tonight – or any minute, since we are half a day behind the Middle East, night is already falling there. And there are even some reports via Twitter sources that the Libyan navy is firing on shore targets.
Earlier, it was reported that a group of Libyan Air Force officers had defected to Malta. It turns out that they were already on a mission to Benghazi and disengaged at 500 feet. Unlike in Egypt, where the military refused orders to fire upon the civlians, these air force officers are in the minority – Libya is killing its own people.
It’s rare for me to advocate something as direct as a military action – but a no-fly zone is something we must as a nation do, and do immediately, if we are to do anything to help bring about a new golden age of democracy in the Middle East. After Egypt, all Arab leaders feared their people; after Libya, the people will again fear their tyrants. All the progress will be lost, all the potential will be wasted.
This is the moment that must be seized. And only we can do it.
I am about to depart Cairo after five great days here spent conducting interviews and gathering “atmospherics” in post-Mubarak Egypt. I want to thank my employers for allowing me to take an extra five days off work to do this research as well as Issandr el-Amrani and his wife for being such generous hosts. I also want to thank Elijah Zarwan and many other people who have shared their expertise but would prefer to remain anonymous. I got to visit with my old friend Charles Levinson before he ran to the border, and let me continue to recommend both his coverage and that of his colleagues at the Wall Street Journal for what has been, in my observations at least, the best newspaper coverage to emerge out of these events. (al-Jazeera and CNN’s Ben Wedeman, meanwhile, continue to set the standard for television journalism.)
Like all of you, I have been horrified to see the images and reports coming out of Libya. Some of the images have been truly shocking, as has been the behavior of the evil Libyan regime.
But I am already reading calls for the United States and its allies to intervene in Libya, and I think we should all take a step back and first ask four questions:
1. Will an international intervention make things better, or worse?
2. If worse, do nothing. If better, who should be a part of this intervention?
3. Should the United States lead the intervention?
4. If so, what should we do?
All too often in humanitarian emergencies or conflicts, we skip ahead to Question 4 without first answering the first three questions. Let us not make that mistake this time. (Because I don’t myself even know the answer to Question 1.)
Frankly, I’m conflicted on this one. The crackdown on protesters is horrible but, unless is spills over international borders, I’m not sure that foreign intervention is either appropriate or justifiable. In either case, I certainly don’t think that unilateral American action would be appropriate, especially since it would seem to play right into the “foreign influence” meme that the Gaddafi family has been trying to tag the protests with over the past several days. In the end, how this turns out is going to have to be in the hands of the Libyan people.
Government forces opened fire on hundreds of mourners marching toward Pearl Square on Friday, sending people running away in panic amid the boom of concussion grenades. But even as the people fled, at least one helicopter sprayed fire on them and a witness reported seeing mourners crumpling to the ground.
It was not immediately clear what type of ammunition the forces were firing, but some witnesses reported fire from automatic weapons and the crowd was screaming “live fire, live fire.” At a nearby hospital, witnesses reported seeing people with very serious injuries and gaping wounds, at least some of them caused by rubber bullets that appeared to have been fired at close range.
Even as ambulances rushed to rescue people, forces fired on medics loading the wounded into their vehicles. That only added to the chaos, with people pitching in to evacuate the wounded by car and doctors at a nearby hospital saying the delays in casualties reaching them made it impossible to get a reasonable count of the dead and wounded.
As a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. But it is heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate Bahrain right now and watch as a critical American ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it.
This kind of brutal repression is normally confined to remote and backward nations, but this is Bahrain. An international banking center. The home of an important American naval base, the Fifth Fleet. A wealthy and well-educated nation with a large middle class and cosmopolitan values.
To be here and see corpses of protesters with gunshot wounds, to hear an eyewitness account of an execution of a handcuffed protester, to interview paramedics who say they were beaten for trying to treat the injured — yes, all that just breaks my heart.
So here’s what happened.
The pro-democracy movement has bubbled for decades in Bahrain, but it found new strength after the overthrow of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Then the Bahrain government attacked the protesters early this week with stunning brutality, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun pellets at small groups of peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. Two demonstrators were killed (one while walking in a funeral procession), and widespread public outrage gave a huge boost to the democracy movement.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa initially pulled the police back, but early on Thursday morning he sent in the riot police, who went in with guns blazing. Bahrain television has claimed that the protesters were armed with swords and threatening security. That’s preposterous. I was on the roundabout earlier that night and saw many thousands of people, including large numbers of women and children, even babies. Many were asleep.
I was not there at the time of the attack, but afterward, at the main hospital (one of at least three to receive casualties), I saw the effects. More than 600 people were treated with injuries, overwhelmingly men but including small numbers of women and children.
On Bahrain TV, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa called for open communication, saying, “The dialogue is always open and the reforms continue. This land is for all citizens of Bahrain.” He added, “We need to call for self-restraint from all sides, the armed forces, security men, and citizens.”
As in Egypt, the White House is in the awkward position of asking for restraint from a longtime strategic ally, while not appearing to directly oppose the regime. After four protesters were killed on Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “expressed deep concern about recent events and urged restraint moving forward.”
As the government turned to violence, the protesters, who vowed to repeat Egypt’s nonviolent model, have likewise grown more aggressive. Early on they called for a transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Then, reports the Times, “On Thursday, the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down. And on Friday, the mourners were chanting slogans like ‘death to Khalifa,’ referring to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.”
Despite denials from sources close to the Bahraini government, credible rumors of Saudi tanks and troops on the ground in Bahrain are widespread, as the ruling Bahraini House of Khalifa desperately reasserts control in the capital after initially ceding the central Pearl Square to tens of thousands of anti-government protesters. The House of Saud, as you may recall, has a strong interest in ensuring that the Shiite-driven unrest in Bahrain doesn’t spill over to Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite-manned oil fields.
In addition to the Nicholas Kristof tweet that Jesse Walker posted earlier (more here), which suggested that Saudi troops were stopping ambulances from helping protesters injured in the surprise midnight attack (and that’s not the only suggestion of medics being prevented from helping), there are a few reports that Saudi tanks may have arrived on the island. One Spanish racing team owner (Bahrain was set to host the season-opening Formula 1 Grand Prix next month, something which is now very much in doubt) claimed that “there are Saudi tanks everywhere.” An Iranian news organization is claiming the Saudis sent hundreds of tanks and personnel carriers in from Qatar, which it backs up with a video of armored personnel carriers rolling down a highway in Manama, though I can’t confirm that those are actually from Saudi Arabia. The Guardian writes, somewhat ambiguously: “Tanks and troops from Saudi Arabia were reported to have been deployed in support of Bahraini forces.”
Regardless of whether or not Saudi troops and tanks actually took part in the brutal early morning attack that dislodged the protesters from Pearl Square, the Khalifas have taken measures to prevent their own security forces from sympathizing with the mostly Shiite Bahraini protesters. For years the Sunni rulers of Bahrain have been accused of recruiting foreign riot police and naturalizing them in an effort to avoid an Egypt-like situation where low-level officers refuse orders to fire on their countrymen. As a result, few among the Bahraini security forces speak the local dialect, and some of the Pakistanis don’t speak Arabic at all.
Obama condemned that violence Friday in a written statement that also sought to quell reprisals against pro-democracy activists in Yemen and Libya, saying:
I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur. We express our condolences to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly. The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.
Obama’s statement maintained the stance he took as Egypt’s protests unfolded — where protesters at first met police resistance and then, after police left the streets, where gangs of Mubarak supporters turned violently on protesters and journalists. Throughout that turmoil, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steadfastly called on the Egyptian government to avoid violence and respect the “universal rights” of Egyptian citizens.
The picture from Bahrain, however, appears grimmer for pro-democracy activists, as police opened fire on the protestors Friday. The New York Times reports that shots were fired from at least one helicopter.
I know some Glenn Beck fans are probably reading this, but anarchy is a much more likely outcome than Caliphate. Not that either result would be especially good for our interests. Al Qaeda & Co thrive in failed states — but what happens in a failed region?
Truth be told, the Arab world has been failing for a long time. The region combines a long history of Ottoman oppression, lingering resentment from the fleeting period of Western colonialism, ballooning populations and shrinking economies, a malign fascination with Nazi racial theories and Soviet-style politics, and the skewed absurdities of oil wealth and Western aid. Shake it all up with the murderous and nihilistic resentments of Islamic fundamentalism, and you get lots of angry, well-armed people with no experience in self-governance and lots of scapegoats in need of a good killing.
Hundreds of black-clad riot police officers, some in bullet-proof vests, deployed in key locations in central Tehran on Monday and fired tear gas to thwart an Iranian opposition march in solidarity with the uprising in Egypt, news reports and witnesses’ accounts from Iran said.
At the same time a reformist Web site reported that phone lines to the home of one opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, had been cut and that several cars had blocked access to his home, preventing him from leaving. Restrictions have also been imposed on the movements and communications of another opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, and the authorities refused an opposition request for a permit for a demonstration.
In the city center the police gathered in small groups at some intersections but numbered around 200 in the major squares that carry symbolic importance for Iranians and are named Revolution and Freedom. Some security forces were on motorcycles and carried paintball guns to fire at opponents, news reports said.
Despite the presence of security forces, Reuters reported, thousands of Iranians marched toward the central Enghelab, or Revolution, Square, but their way was blocked by the police and security forces. The report quoted unidentified witnesses because the authorities had apparently revived regulations barring reporters from the streets to cover such protests.
The restrictions were first invoked in the tumult that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, when vast crowds challenged the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and faced a prolonged crackdown characterized by killings and mass arrests.
Demonstrators chanted “Death to the dictator,” a reference to Mr. Ahmadinejad, and were met with volleys of tear gas, news reports said.
Announced plans by Iranian opposition leaders to hold a rally in support of the Egyptian demonstrators on February 14 have caused the authorities to react strongly, calling the plans “political and divisive.” Communication through Internet and cell phone is already tightly controlled in Iran and in a far more systematic way than in Egypt. Now the regime is making sure that dissidents remain under heavy pressure.
According to The New York Times, Iranian security forces have been stationed outside the home of the reformist cleric an opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who is among the organizers of the planned rally. Family members have been barred from visiting him, and there are reports of a crackdown and arrests of reporters and people associated with Karroubi and other opposition figures.
What makes the case of Iran particularly interesting—and as a matter of fact hypocritical in the extreme—is that the Iranian government itself has expressed support for the anti-government demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. But they are not willing to allow any popular movements challenging the control of the state in their own streets. “If they are not going to allow their own people to protest, it goes against everything they are saying, and all they are doing to welcome the protests in Egypt is fake,” Karroubi said in an interview with The New York Times.
Unfortunately, accusing Iran’s mullahs of a double standard is hardly going to cause them many sleepless nights. However, the thought of the Iranian people exercising their free political rights in their own streets certainly will.
It’s worth remembering that most protests come and go, and it’s the extremely rare historical moment that turns demonstration into revolution. But what could make revolution a possibility in Iran is if the regime were to wildly overreact in its crackdown. Eliciting such overreaction is often the tactical goal of the revolutionary. Fence-sitters are not eager to give up a modicum of stability and a barely tolerable existence; but when there’s a bloodbath, they too take to the streets in disgust. Given the regional political temperature, the Iranian regime’s historical inclination to absolute security, and the new suspicion that Washington is content to be a witness to atrocity, there could be a perfect paranoid storm brewing in the minds of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Amadinejad.
Iran is not Egypt, of course, and the regime has already survived a populist challenge to its rule once the past two years. The likelihood that this will develop into the type of mass protests necessary to bring down a government seems minimal at best. Nonetheless, it is clear that the spirit of discontent remains alive and well in the Islamic Republic and that may be something worth looking into.
Whoa, guess where the latest Muslim-land protests are happening? Iran! A funny thing is how Iran’s religious-fanatic leadership first praised the Egyptian revolution (which has been officially been named the January 25 Revolution, which like all date-based revolution names will never be used outside of the country in question), because maybe Egypt would become a theocracy and mercilessly prosecute errant hikers, so hooray? But then it turned out that the Egyptian revolution was pretty much a “college graduates pissed off because life is hard and meaningless” revolution, and that is not looking good for the ayatollahs — who, like all professional frauds, teach that you must put up with endless crap in “this life” so that later, in space, long after you are dead and gone forever, you will have sexytime in paradise and drink so much “clear wine.” Anyway, things are getting crazy in Tehran!
The protests in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak might be snowballing into something big. The New York Times reports “tens of thousands of people” protested in “several Egyptian cities,” tearing down posters of their autocratic leader in what organizers called the “Day of Revolution.” But, though there were clashes between protestors and security forces, and the government shut down Twitter access, Time magazine quotes one police captain as saying with a shrug: “We can contain them at any time.” See the Times‘s Lede blog for several video clips of the hubbub. The Washington Post is now saying that calm has returned to Cairo’s streets.
New York Times correspondent Mark Landler reports that the unrest across the region—Tunis, Lebanon and Egypt—has thrown a monkey wrench into the administration’s foreign-policy approach, downplaying the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda.” Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid agrees that Washington “is—at least in the short term—stuck,” and urges the Obama administration to “to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule.” Mother Jones‘s Nick Baumann gives a thumnail sketch of what’s going on here.
In the latest development, the Times of India is repeating a story that it says surfaced on a “US-based Arabic website,” that Mubarak’s son and potential successor, Gamal, and his family have fled to Britain along with Mubarak’s wife.
CNN estimates that at the height, the rally was 15,000 to 20,000 strong in Liberation Square (Maydan al-Tahrir), downtown Cairo. The rallies protested the high unemployment rate, high price of food, and long years of ‘emergency rule’ by President Hosni Mubarak, under regulations that suspend most civil and human rights on grounds of national security.
The pan-Arab London daily, al-Hayat [Life], wrote: Thousands of youth in Egypt yesterday disappointed expectations that the call for a “Day of Rage” put out on the internet last week would fail. Numerous big demonstrations were mounted in the center of Cairo and a number of provinces. This, even though the streets were thick with security personnel. Their attempts to disperse the demonstrators failed, but two bystanders were killed by gunfire in a provincial city. When demonstrators in Cairo started throwing stones at the parliament building, Egyptian police intervened with tear gas.
Egypt is of the utmost geopolitical importance. In one recent year, 7.5 % of all the world’s trade passed through the Suez Canal (and a much higher percentage of seaborne trade). Over 4% of world petroleum trade went through the canal. Egypt, with a population of 81 million, is the 15th largest in the world. A middle income country, it has the world’s 36th largest GDP in nominal terms, putting it ahead of Malaysia, Nigeria, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Egypt’s soft power in the Arab world, as its cultural center, and its peace treaty with Israel, make it a crucial ally of the United States. Unrest in Egypt puts a great many things in doubt that are important to the US. Were a government to come to power that was more hostile to Israel and more committed to the Palestinians, that development could roil the region.
I lived in Cairo for altogether about three years, off and on, know Egyptian Arabic, and have written two monographs and lots of articles and book chapters about modern Egypt. I was there in January, 1977, the last time the country was shaken by demonstrations on this scale. Seeing these events reminded me of the late afternoon I came out of a public lecture at the American University in Cairo onto Liberation Square, to find throngs in the streets and the sky darkened with debris. People were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of wood. Young men were carrying friends on their shoulders. They taunted then President Anwar El Sadat. The demonstrations were caused by Sadat’s decision to listen to the International Monetary Fund and to cut subsidies on bread, other staples, and natural gas canisters, making all of them shoot up in price and harming the working and middle classes. After three days of rallies and fruitless government attempts to impose order, Sadat announced he was restoring subsidies, and Egypt calmed back down. Because it was purely a food price protest, it suddenly evaporated when the government met its demands.
After reports this morning that Facebook and Twitter were blocked in Egypt, Facebook’s spokesperson Andrew Noyes says that they have not seen the signs of such an effort.
“We are aware of reports of disruption to service but have not seen any major changes in traffic from Egypt,” Noyes wrote in an email.
Of course, as we learned from the Tunisian riots, the government could have something else in mind altogether. In that case, the government had slipped malware in-between users and Facebook to steal their passwords.
I got one anonymous report that appeared to claim a similar operation was in the works in Egypt. A source wrote in saying “the ministry of Interior wanted to record all activist personal data” on Facebook and that “all activist information is now on the ministry server.” I’m digging in to see what else I can find.
The Obama administration needs to “seize the moment” to grapple with the wave of anti-government protests sweeping through Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, several foreign policy scholars urged on Wednesday.
“My impression is that the administration has been basically closing its eyes and praying that it all works out, because anything else seems too hard and too risky,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of a bipartisan Egypt working group of former officials which has been urging the Obama administration to prepare for what comes after the regime of Egypt’s octogenarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.
“They can still swing to right side of this thing, but one thing I have been most struck by in meeting with [U.S. officials] at all levels over the past year is that as of yesterday, they have no plan in any direction” for how to deal with the anti-government movements sweeping through the Middle East, Kagan continued.
The official U.S. response to the remarkable events in Egypt and Tunisia – where the president of more than two decades, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country earlier this month amid a wave of anti-government street protests – has thus far been cautious.
“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists Tuesday, as Egyptian police continued cracking down on anti-government protests.
The end of the Tunisian story hasn’t yet been written. We don’t yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries — Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won’t be next. I’m skeptical too.
But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I’ve been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn’t ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn’t ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.
The arguments for skepticism are strong ones. Without belaboring the obvious, every Arab country is different. Each has a distinct political history and culture, a distinct political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography. Many compelling articles have now shown precisely why Tunisia was different — its robust middle class, its highly educated population, its relatively small size, its ties to Europe through labor migration and remittances, its vulnerability to the global financial crisis, its particularly censored media, its relatively small and under-nurtured military, its relative insignificance to U.S. strategic interests. But those aren’t the only reasons to doubt that the Tunisian model can spread.
Another argument for skepticism is authoritarian learning. Simply put, most Arab regimes are quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged. Unlike tightly controlled Tunisia, states such as Egypt and Jordan have been grappling with protests movements for going on a decade now and have an all-too-rich experience with how to repress, divide, and defeat the new protest movements. Yesterday’s massive demonstrations in Cairo may have shocked everyone — outsiders, Egypt’s government, even the protestors — but in a country which has been rocked by pro-Palestine and anti-Iraq war protests, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 movement, the judges and lawyers protests, and massive labor unrest, the difference is in scale, not type. The same is true across many of the Arab countries which have struggled with restive societies over the last decade.
Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali’s mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not “be more democratic,” it is “be tougher.” No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt’s protestors yesterday doesn’t mean that they won’t be violently crushed today.
And then, of course, there’s the international context. Where Tunisia may be relatively insignificant to the great international strategic issues in the region — Israel, Iran, Iraq, oil — other potential dominoes have a greater claim on the support of the world’s Realists. These authoritarian regimes are the foundation of the America-led regional order. For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies — to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today. It’s not the least bit surprising that the Washington Post, which has obsessively focused on democracy in Egypt, today finds itself deeply worried by instability there and the strength of Islamists.
Finally, most of the regimes seem to retain the foundations of their overt strength. Oil prices are tolerably high, security services loyal, elections thoroughly manipulated, Islamists repressed, international support strong. In short, there are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.
And yet… it doesn’t feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.
“Wildcat protests and rioting” have “shaken” Tunisia’s leader of twenty-three years, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The demonstrations, which the United Nations says have resulted in over sixty deaths, were sparked at least partly by a WikiLeaked document written by the American ambassador (and cleverly titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”) in which he detailed the ruling family’s extravagent wealth (many Tunisians refer to Ben Ali’s extended relations as “The Family” or “The Mafia”). And what began in mid-December as one small-town street vendor’s self-immolation (after authorities took away his vegetable cart) culminated Thursday in the looting and destruction by protestors of a home owned by the president’s uncle in a wealthy seaside resort.
President Ben Ali, who originally took power in a bloodless coup, then gave a speech in which he promised to halt violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, open up freedom for the press and stop Internet censorship—and “cut prices for sugar, milk and bread.” He also promised to step down as president after his current term runs out in 2014, as required by Tunisia’s constitution. But the Timesalso reports that his effort to sooth the public’s anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.
Want to know what’s happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:
What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the “vote.”
What’s happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali’s totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, is could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)
Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don’t have much freedom. But there also just aren’t enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it’s probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country’s wealth to Ben Ali’s family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.
How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has a good article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution.
On Thursday, as protests continued across Tunisia, bloggers and eyewitnesses posted more video of the demonstrations online, including graphic images of protesters who have been gunned down on the streets.
One clip, uploaded by contributors to Nawaat — a group blog using Posterous, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread news of the protests — showed a huge banner of the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, being torn down in Hammamet on Thursday. As my colleague David Kirkpatrick reported from Hammamet, an exclusive Mediterranean beach town, “rioters calling for the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president swarmed the streets, torched bank offices and ransacked a mansion belonging to one of his relatives.”
Despite apparent efforts by the government to keep Tunisians from using social networks to report on the crisis, new video continues to be posted day after day.
As the casualties mount, and the government continues to use violence to suppress the discontent, video of dead protesters has been added to Nawaat’s YouTube channel with disturbing regularity. On Thursday, one extremely graphic clip, apparently filmed earlier in the day on the streets of Tunis, the capital, showed the body of a man the bloggers said was gunned down by a sniper.
Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.
He spoke directly to the police forces and ordered them not to shoot, unless in cases of self-defense. On the same line he said a commission will investigate in the murders that occurred.
He also said that people misled him in several areas, and particularly in the areas of politics and freedom. He admited that he didn’t achieve his goals or dreams in these areas.He granted that all liberties will be given to the people of Tunisia. He stated that the right of setting an organization, a political party, or a media will be totally opened. He said all censorship online or on traditional media will be stopped.
People are still cautious and doubt these words. We are talking about billions of $ stolen by his family. A political party, RCD, which is much much stronger than other parties. We are also talking about 150k policemen who acted like a terrorist organization for decades and particularly lately. Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.
We will probably start by checking his words tomorrow.
I missed another major point in his speech, probably because of the excitement of this moment.
He announced that he would not run for president in 2014.
Again, I am not sure this is sufficient. Yet this is a step forward.
Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt’s authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration’s alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime’s heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis’s efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The “Tunisia scenario” is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.
But the Post‘s op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?
Perhaps they’ve had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It’s far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women’s rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia’s absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration’s signature democracy promotion initiative.
This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it’s worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.
The easy answer, but possibly also the right one, is that they have nothing to say about it because it is something much more like a genuine, indigenous popular movement that is not working to advance “pro-Western” or “pro-American” policy goals, and it is therefore irrelevant or even unwelcome in their view. Most of the “color” revolutions were directed against governments that were seen as hostile to U.S. and allied interests or at least too closely aligned with Russia and (in Lebanon’s case) Syria, and the “color” revolutionaries were always identified as “pro-Western” reformers regardless of the accuracy of this description, and so advocates of “democracy” responding accordingly with enthusiastic support for the protesters. When a pro-Western secular autocrat faces a popular uprising that is almost certainly not being encouraged and backed from outside, these advocates of “democracy” have nothing to say because democratic reform was simply a means for advancing regime changes in several countries that the advocates wanted to bring into a Western orbit. Ben Ali’s downfall represents quite the opposite. If Lynch looked back at the reactions from most democracy-promoting outlets after the elections of Morales or of Chavez, which came at the expense of pro-American oligarchies, he would likely find a similar silence and indifference to the empowerment of those countries’ poor majorities.
UPDATE: The Tunisian government is denying that Morjane has stepped down, according to Al Arabiya. Meanwhile, President Ben Ali just spoke and said he had ordered security forces to stop firing on demonstrators. He also announced a series of measures aimed at mollifying popular anger, including lower prices for bread, milk, and sugar. Most important of all, he promised not to run for re-election in 2014, when his term is due to expire. We’ll see if he lasts that long.
This thing may really be happening. Kamel Morjane — or someone with access to his website — has just announced his resignation*:
Citizens of the Republic of Tunisia, After witnessing the recent event that our country has been enduring since December17th 2010, I declare my inaptitude in pursuing my function in a serene and objective environment as intended.
I declare hereby my official resignation from my function as a minister of foreign affairs at the Tunisian government. In a last effort to assume my responsabilities, I am asking the families of the tunisian martyrs to accept my sincere condoleances and my deep regret faced to their common tragedy. I assumed the fate of the Tunisian citizens, after marrying the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s first cousins, and was a member of the family and part of their clan. I am not proud of my own family, and in an honest declaration, would be ready to be judged in court at the same time as they will be. This will be my last service to the Tunisian citizens, in hope that with my resignation, citizens of Tunisia will be more graceful towards me and my family.
I make this decision in hope for the return of rest. I relinquish the Tunisian government to express my deep affliction and my righteous anger toward the dire management of this crisis, causing hence the death of dozens of young Tunisians. I am profoundly convinced that these are not terrorist acts, but citizens exerting their right to strike against a regime who abandoned them for two decades. For this reason, I do not deem myself a member of this oppressing and manipulating government. In a last resort to save face with the international media, the government is working hard from within to portray the protesters as mindless terrorists destroying their country and refusing any peaceful discussion. The government has hired teams of their own police in civilian attire that go around ravaging the suburbs in an effort to spread doubt and disseminate the truth about the tunisian people.
I reiterate my most sincere condolences to the families of victims, not only to the ones that passed away these four past weeks, but to all the broken families by the injustice and inconveniences caused by this clan as well.
For a free Tunisia,
This is a fast-moving story. The New York Timesreports that protesters overran a mansion owned by one of the president’s relatives. The Twitterverse is aflame with rumors that other members of the ruling family have fled the country. President Ben Ali is said to have three helicopters fueled up and ready for an emergency flight to Malta.
As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. “There will be a military coup — we will see. You will see,” Ben Brik told me. “The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family.”
If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone.
Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president’s most pronounced critics, described the regime as “the worst kind of tyranny — [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state.” Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. “It wasn’t just that I was arrested — I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old.” Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.
What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible — and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. “WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state,” Ben Brik said.
To understand why these acts of violence against civilians is rarely condemned by Western governments, we have to understand the political dynamics in the region. Tunisia, despite the private criticisms targeted at the regime by the U.S. ambassador (as was revealed by WikiLeaks), is considered an important Western ally in the so called “war on terror”. Ben Ali, the President of the “Republic”, like the majority of the Arab dictators, have taken advantage of the American government’s strong desire to build relationships with new allies to fight Al-Qaida and related groups. These police states, including Tunisia, exploited this post-9/11 trend in the American foreign policy which allowed them an increased grip on power. As a result, they delegitimized peaceful decent further, put more restrictions on freedom of expression and heavily controlled Internet access. Also, because they have only been concerned about their own well being, and not about the well being of their constituents, these rulers have focused on increasing their own wealth and that of their family members through questionable business dealings and favouritism. It is no secret that the Ben Ali clan acts more like a Mafia putting their hands on the majority of profitable businesses in the country.
Here is my humble prediction for the next decade: unless Arab leaders implement serious political and economical reforms we will see more of this type of popular uprising in other neighbouring countries. It is only a matter of time. The wind of peaceful change in Tunisia has given hope to the oppressed people all over the Arab World. Whether Western countries or their allies in the region like or not, this wind, with the help of the Internet, will eventually affect the all these countries who are thirsty for democracy and justice. Only then, when it is too late, the Western countries will regret that they have all along been on the wrong side of the fence.
Ahmadinejad unveiled his new jet-powered giant dildo bomber one day after Iran began fueling its first nuclear power reactor. The Ambassador of Death has a range of 620 miles and can carry four cruise missiles to “keep the enemy paralyzed in its bases.” Ahmadinejad spoke about his new toy’s dual purpose: “The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship.” How cute!
Depending on the mission, according to the Iranian Defense Ministry, the 13-foot-long, remotely-piloted aircraft can deliver either a pair of 250-pound bombs, a single 450-pound laser-guided bomb, or a quartet of cruise missiles. The UAV travels 560 miles per hour with 620-mile range. It should be noted that past Iranian defense claims have made fish stories seem reliable, and, among other red flags waving today, cruise missile capability would extend the Ambassador of Death’s range well past 620 miles. But taking the specs at face value, here’s how Ahmadinejad’s new saber measures up:
The poster child of UAVs, the 27-foot-long Predator has a cruise speed of 84 mph and a range of 454 miles. Originally developed for reconnaissance by the U.S. Department of Defense in the mid-1990s, Predators were fitted with a pair of Hellfire missiles after an American general remarked, “I can see the tank. Now I’d like to see it blown up.”
When that worked, the Department of Defense commenced development of the Reaper UAV. In operation since 2006, the 36-foot-long Reaper boasts a cruise speed of around 230 mph, a 3,682-mile range, and a relative arsenal including Hellfires, Sidewinder missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs–a potent enough package overall that the Air Force subsequently decided to train more pilots to fly aircraft from ground operations centers than from cockpits.
Two years later, Israel unveiled the Heron UAV, 43 feet long with a wingspan of 85 feet, or about that of a Boeing 737. Its range is 5,000 miles–or deep into Iran and back twice. The Karrar’s stated range would leave it nearly 500 miles shy of Israel. The Heron’s weapons payload, meanwhile, can be 4,000 pounds, or about eight times that of Iran’s new aircraft.
This April brought the introduction a jet-powered version of the Predator, the Avenger, with a top speed of close to 500 mph and, more importantly, a good deal of infrared and radar-proof stealth design–without stealth, the Ambassador of Death may find itself the jet-powered version of a sitting duck.
James Jewell, President of UAV MarketSpace and one of America’s top unmanned aerial systems experts, speculated that Iran’s new offering is “nothing special,” adding of today’s announcement, “I suspect it has an element of hyperbole since it comes so close to the nuclear reactor fueling announcement.”
Jewell also noted several other countries with UAV systems comparable or superior to Iran’s, notably France, Italy, and South Africa (for a fairly extensive international UAV roster, see Wikipedia’s unmanned aerial vehicle page).
The Ambassador of Death, however, has the scariest name.
According to the official word from Tehran, the 13-foot Karrar (’striker”) drone is capable of carrying four cruise missiles. That’s really unlikely. Even smaller-sized cruise missiles, like the Russian Kh-135s, weigh a more than a thousand pounds and are about nine feet long; it’s tough to imagine a relative pipsqueak like the Karrar lugging such a hefty package. [Update: As Pirouz notes in the comments, Iran calls its anti-ship missiles, like the Chinese C-701, “cruise missiles.” Those are compact enough for drone duty.] State television later claimed that the Karrar could carry a pair of 250-pound bombs or a single 500-pounder. That’s more believable (although the single bomb the drone is carrying in the video above looks more like a 250-pound model to me).
Iran has been making its own drones for a while; the U.S. even shot one down over Iraq last year. Since 2004, a small number of those unmanned aerial vehicles have made their way into Hezbollah’s hands. This, however, would be Iran’s first armed robo-plane. In so doing, state television crows, “Iran broke the military advantage of America” — and prepped the country for the looming days of all-robot warfare. That should arrive around 2020, the Iranian Defense Ministry guesstimates.
Tehran’s scientists went “500,000 hours without sleep and eating” while designing the drone, according the state TV report. That figure sounds about as authentic as Iran’s 2007 pronouncement that it had fired off a space-ready missile (which turned out to be nothing more than a modified Scud), or July 2008’s picture of a missile barrage (most of which were Photoshopped dummies).
Israel’s deadly naval commando raid Monday morning on a flotilla carrying thousands of tons of supplies for Gaza is generating widespread international condemnation and diplomatic repercussions far beyond the waters where the confrontation occurred.
Several European nations summoned their Israeli envoys to explain Israel’s actions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans for meeting with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, an Israeli government official confirmed. Mr. Netanyahu, who is visiting Canada, planned to return home Monday to deal with fallout from the raid, the official said.
The criticism offered a propaganda coup to Israel’s foes, particularly Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in Gaza, and damaged Israel’s ties to Turkey, one of its most important Muslim partners and the unofficial sponsor of the Gaza-bound convoy. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling the raid “state terrorism,” cut short a visit to Latin America to return home.
The Israeli Defense Forces said more than 10 people were killed when naval personnel boarding the six ships in the aid convoy met with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs.” The naval forces then “employed riot dispersal means, including live fire,” the military said in a statement.
Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version.
“That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.”
“We never thought there would be any violence,” she said.
At least four Israeli soldiers were wounded in the operation, some from gunfire, according to the military. Television footage from the flotilla before communications were cut showed what appeared to be commandos sliding down ropes from helicopters onto one of the vessels in the flotilla, while Israeli high-speed naval vessels surrounded the convoy.
A military statement said two activists were later found with pistols they had taken from Israeli commandos. The activists, the military said, had apparently opened fire “as evident by the empty pistol magazines.”
The warships first intercepted the convoy of cargo and passenger boats shortly before midnight on Sunday, according to activists on one vessel. Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza.
Named the Freedom Flotilla and led by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy was the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza.
About 600 passengers were said to be aboard the vessels, including the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Corrigan-Maguire of Northern Ireland.
There are, not surprisingly, competing versions of exactly what transpired, and Israeli officials not only defended the existing blockade policy, but said Israeli forces faced resistance on the ships. Every claim has a counter-claim, of course, and those condemning the violent raid this morning insist Israeli forces attacked peaceful civilians, including a flotilla carrying a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor.
Either way, as the AP noted, the pre-dawn violence has “set off worldwide condemnation and a diplomatic crisis.”
This much is clearly true. The ship was unofficially sponsored by Turkey, which has long been a key Israeli ally in the regional, and which recalled its ambassador to Israel this morning in the wake of the incident. The United Nations, among others, is demanding a detailed Israeli explanation.
The White House issued a written statement, noting that the United States “deeply regrets” the loss of life and injuries, and was gathering information to understand exactly what transpired in this “tragedy.”
1548 GMT: The United Nations Security Council will meet on Monday afternoon for an emergency session that will start at 1 P.M., New York time.
1545 GMT: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Chile: “This is a state terrorism.”
1515 GMT: While on his way to Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “This is clearly a piracy. Israel must apologize and answer. According to unconfirmed information, we have around 50 wounded and 10 martyries. No country is above the international law.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands people are protesting in front of Israel’s Consulate General in Istanbul.
Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives and peaceful initiatives through targeting innocent civilians. We strongly condemn these inhuman acts of Israel. This grave incident which took place in high seas in gross violation of international law might cause irreversible consequences in our relations.
Besides the initiatives being conducted by our Embassy in Tel Aviv, this unacceptable incident is being strongly protested and explanation is demanded from Israeli Ambassador in Ankara, who has been invited to our Ministry.
Whatsoever the motives might be, such actions against civilians who are involved only in peaceful activities cannot be accepted. Israel will have to bear the consequences of these actions which constitute a violation of international law.
May God bestow His mercy upon those who lost their lives. We wish to express our condolences to the bereaved families of the deceased, and swift recovery to the wounded.
1440 GMT: Israel’s Portrayal. Amidst the rush of Israeli depictions of the attack — with the continuing use of the word “lynching”, now from the commandos who carried out the assault — this story stands out from a “Ron Ben Yishai” in YNet:
Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapon.
1435 GMT: Washington’s Reaction. The US statement, given by White House spokesman Bill Burton, is far more restrained than the UN denunciation of Israel (1330 GMT) and even Britain’s expression of concern (1035 GMT). Burton said the Obama administration “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained” and officials are “currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy”.
Our Navy commandoes fell right into the hands of the Gaza mission members. A few minutes before the takeover attempt aboard the Marmara got underway, the operation commander was told that 20 people were waiting on the deck where a helicopter was to deploy the first team of the elite Flotilla 13 unit. The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.
Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down. However, Flotilla 13 fighters decided to carry on.
Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.
One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.
‘I saw the tip of a rifle’
The Navy commandoes were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances.
The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandoes who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness. Only after this injury did Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandoes. “I saw the tip of a rifle sticking out of the stairwell,” one commando said. “He fired at us and we fired back. We didn’t see if we hit him. We looked for him later but couldn’t find him.” Two soldiers sustained gunshot wounds to their knee and stomach after rioters apparently fired at them using guns wrested away from troops.
The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. “Throw stun grenades,” shouted Flotilla 13’s commander who monitored the operation. The Navy chief was not too far, on board a speedboat belonging to Flotilla 13, along with forces who attempted to climb into the back of the ship
I have my doubts about the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and there was obviously an operational/intelligence failure that led to Israel’s naval commandos having to open fire to defend themselves, giving the other side a propaganda victory. But it does appear that the physical violence started from the other side, which to begin with had the rather unhumanitarian mission of aiding Hamas, and, to the extent there were sincere humanitarian/peace activists involved, allowed themselves to get hijacked by violent Islamic extremists who manned one of the ships.
Net result of the “peace/humanitarian” mission: dead activists, wounded Israeli soldiers, no more humanitarian aid to Gaza than if Israel’s offer to transfer the aid to Gaza from Ashdod had been accepted, and a likely breakdown in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that were about to start. Congratulations.
This crisis — and it is a crisis — is the fairly predictable outcome of the years of neglect of the Gaza situation by the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush turned a blind eye during the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, and then the Obama team chose to focus on renewing peace talks between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority while continuing to boycott Hamas. The U.S. only sporadically and weakly paid attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the strategic absurdity and moral obtuseness of the Israeli blockade, or the political implications of the ongoing Hamas-Fatah divide. Now, on the eve of Obama’s scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas — the fruits of the “honey offensive” towards Israel — can they be surprised that Gaza is blowing up in their face?
The Israeli assault on the flotilla has galvanized Arab and international media attention (to say nothing of my Twitter feed). Arab and Turkish publics appear to be truly outraged, as do the Turkish, Arab and many European governments. The issue is evidently headed to the Security Council. It is difficult to fathom how the Israeli government could have thought that this was a good way to respond to a long-developing public relations challenge, but its actions will certainly fuel its evolving international legitimacy crisis. We’ll be keeping track of the story as it develops.
The incident is being portrayed in the Arab press as an unprovoked attack by the soldiers. As usual, the flaw in this theory is that if the soldiers had set out to massacre the activists, they would have done a better job of it. Violence occurred on only one of the six ships, because only on that ship was it instigated by the pro-Palestinian activists. But that won’t stop the incident from triggering another round of world-wide Israel-bashing.
The government has let the flotilla “drive Israel into a sea of stupidity,” writes Gideon Levy, a senior columnist for Haaretz the country’s most prominent liberal daily.
“We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second,” writes Bradley Burston, a senior editor at Haaretz. “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.”
Burston would know: A Los Angeles native and Berkeley graduate, he moved to Israel in the 1970s with some young Americans I knew to settle in Kibbutz Gezer, a progressive outpost between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If you can recall that in those Vietnam War/Nixon years Israel seemed a lot more noble and just to many of us than the U.S. did, you’ll understand why Burston served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat medic and studied medicine in Be’er Sheva for two years.
But Burston must also know that his scathing Vietnam analogy has its limits: The U.S. could have walked away from Vietnam with no dangerous consequences. In Gaza, by comparison, the influence of Iran and other powers make the Israeli situation a little more… existential. Israelis also don’t have Americans’ history of conquering a whole continent and not having to care about it. Their history, too, is more… existential.
But precisely for those reasons, Haaretz reports, Israeli security forces are now on high alert, bracing for protests closer to home, maybe even for a third intifada if it turns out that one of the Palestinian activists on board the flotilla was killed. That only underscores the government’s stupidity.
There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance. Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a Yiddishe kop, a “Jewish head,” is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.
I don’t know yet exactly what happened at sea when a group of Israeli commandos boarded a ship packed with not-exactly-Gandhi-like anti-Israel protesters. I learned from the Second Intifada (specifically, the story of the non-massacre at Jenin) not to rush to judgment without a full set of facts (yes, I know what you are thinking: So why have a blog?). I’m trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal. It faces another existential threat as well, from forces arguing that Israel’s morally disastrous settlement policy fatally undermines the very idea of a Jewish state. Is Israel ready to deploy seichel in these battles, rather than mere force?
UPDATE: Lots and lots of posts on this one. Just a handful, a sprinkling here.
Six months after the revelation of a secret nuclear enrichment site in Iran, international inspectors and Western intelligence agencies say they suspect that Tehran is preparing to build more sites in defiance of United Nations demands.
The United Nations inspectors assigned to monitor Iran’s nuclear program are now searching for evidence of two such sites, prompted by recent comments by a top Iranian official that drew little attention in the West, and are looking into a mystery about the whereabouts of recently manufactured uranium enrichment equipment.
In an interview with the Iranian Student News Agency, the official, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered work to begin soon on two new plants. The plants, he said, “will be built inside mountains,” presumably to protect them from attacks.
“God willing,” Mr. Salehi was quoted as saying, “we may start the construction of two new enrichment sites” in the Iranian new year, which began March 21.
The revelation that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, now believe that there may be two new sites comes at a crucial moment in the White House’s attempts to impose tough new sanctions against Iran.
Actually the news was deliberately leaked by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, when he told Iranian Student News Agency that the president of the country “had ordered work to begin on two new plants” that “will be build inside mountains.” Is this meant as a challenge to the U.S. or as a dare to Israel?
The aforesaid “previous story” about the hidden site at Qom was actually revealed by Obama in September in the hope that the news would evoke international support four more stringent sanctions. It didn’t. Russia and China knew already that the president would pull back as, of course, he has.
After weeks of silence, the Iran Nuclear Beat of The New York Times (reporters David Sanger and William Broad) are back with two pieces of fear posing as news and analysis. The two, fed by dissenting voices in the International Atomic Energy Agency and by operatives in “Western intelligence agencies”, declare, “Agencies Suspect Iran Is Planning New Atomic Sites”.
The leap from their sketchy evidence to unsupported conclusion — Iran is not just pursuing an expansion of uranium enrichment but The Bomb, bringing a climactic showdown — is propped up by Sanger’s “Imagining an Israeli Strike on Iran“.
Iran has an interest in spreading out its nuclear program to make it more difficult to destroy that program. The West really doesn’t know what Iran has. Russia and China are still unwilling to go along with sanctions against Iran.
Iranian authorities deployed in force across Tehran Wednesday to conduct last-minute security sweeps and warn residents to refrain from joining antigovernment protests planned for Thursday.
The government typically orchestrates large, carnival-like rallies and demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Republic. For this year’s events on Feb. 11, the day marking the culmination of the annual celebrations, opposition leaders have called for protesters to demonstrate against the regime. That has set the stage for clashes between authorities and demonstrators, who have taken to the streets repeatedly to protest the outcome of presidential elections in June.
Government officials, meanwhile, ratcheted up threats against any protests Thursday, vowing to confront demonstrators on the streets and calling for government supporters to turn out in large numbers. Iranian officials have branded protesters as agents of foreign powers.
The Iranian judiciary has handed down a number of harsh sentences against protesters arrested in previous demonstrations, including at least 10 pending death sentences.
Military helicopters circled overhead Wednesday as municipal workers erected refreshment stands in Tehran’s Azadi Square in preparation for Thursday’s nationwide celebration of the founding of the Islamic Republic, according to eyewitnesses.
Meanwhile, opposition protesters are steeling themselves for an impending showdown, coming up with slogans such as “Yes, Islamic Republic, but not dictatorship”; “The continuation of revolution is to fight despotism”; and “Death to oppressors, whether in Gaza or Tehran,” according to a witness.
“The regime is really scared,” one resident of the capital wrote in an e-mail to The Times. “Anytime [the helicopters] fly over my domicile, everything trembles.”
Major television channels Wednesday were dominated by footage of previous years’ rallies accompanied by patriotic songs and scrolling tickers that read, “The Iranian nation will rise up on 22 Bahman and will voice their cries of freedom and anti-tyranny.”
Alternative media outlets and social networking sites were abuzz with rumors of “shoot to kill” orders and Chinese paintball guns for tagging protesters.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that the government will be “the sole owner of 22 Bahman,” but the authorities aren’t taking any chances.
A) a complex logistical scheme is to be implemented whereby the two sides of the Azadi Square from North and East (where the protesters always emerge) will be blocked for several kilometers in each direction. Those on these two sides will be diverted away from the eyes of the international press confined to designated areas within the square. At the same time, supporters will be marshaled en masse from the West and South ends of the square.
B) Two days prior to the ceremonies, the famous inner ring of Azadi Square has been sealed off by special partitions. On the early hours of Thursday morning, the plan is to fill the space with die-hard supporters while checking the bags and pockets of the others wanting to gain entry to the protected zone to make sure they don’t carry any Green paraphernalia.
C) Dozens of Basij contingents from the provinces have started arriving in Tehran with each group assigned to one part of the northeast quadrant of the city, using Azadi Square as the reference point.
Aside from this, for the last 9 or 10 days a deliberate campaign has been under way to intimidate and warn off potential protesters by: a) the first executions of political prisoners carried out in a long time. Nine others have also been given the death sentence. b) the police chief has on several occasions gone on record claiming that everyone’s emails, telephone calls and text messages may be pried open, adding that those engaged in anti-regime activities will be immediately arrested. Other top law-enforcement officers have claimed that many people have been arrested based on photos taken from them during Ashura protests. Just to prove their point, a wave of arrests has begun in the past two weeks. c) those taking part in protests are now referred to regularly as Mohareb, meaning they are engaged in war on God, an act punishable by death. d) the regime now asserts that it will respond very harshly to those protesting. It is hard to accurately gauge the exact impact of these threats and the actual use of violence on the protesters.
What the protesters may not realize is that most of the gestures are mere bluffs. Why? First, Feb 11 is clearly a day where the government cannot apply severe force on a large scale because the revolution was supposed to have been in reaction to the violence and injustice of an oppressive regime in the first place. It would look monstrous, even among some supporters of the regime, if innocent unarmed civilians were subjected to indiscriminate beatings and attacks just like the film footage of the revolutionary days aired incessantly in the last few days. Next Thursday, up to 250,000 ordinary supporters may come out to the rally along with all their families, including small children and the elderly. This would make it extremely hard to throw tear gas and administer beatings when the line between protester and supporter blurs.
It is important to know that the security forces have not used the same standard riot-control tactics for every protest action in the last few months. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the issue of quelling unrest. For the security establishment, each day of the protests has its own special dynamic.
For example, June 20 — after Khamenei’s first ultimatum–the protesters stood as fair game. This was no official holiday or national day of ceremonies and the Leader had made his threat public. This day took the largest number of casualties of any other day in the last 8 months–it’s the day Neda was murdered. On July 17, the day Ayatollah Rafsanjani was the Friday prayer leader, the protesters had virtually full protection against the regime’s predations until about one hour after the conclusion of the prayer-speech. On September 18, the so-called Qods Day (day of solidarity with the Palestinians) there were not overly aggressive tactics on a large-scale used against the protesters since this day was supposed to be all about the beatings and physical attacks meted out on unarmed Palestinians. A repeat of such tactics in broad daylight on the streets of Tehran would have terminated the utility of the Qods Day once and for all. (Of course, by mid-afternoon, after the dispersal of the pro-regime crowd, it was an altogether different story.)
On December 7, the national day of students, since traditionally the regime had tolerated some protest activity on the country’s university campuses, the students were able to protest and rally relatively unmolested but those demonstrating outside the campus compounds were mercilessly beaten and arrested, etc.
Along these lines, one should not expect severe and massive attacks on protesters on Thursday, at least not until the regime loyalists have left the premises. That would be roughly by 2 pm or thereabouts.
Therefore, if the foregoing is an accurate picture of the situation, we should not see bloody reprisals as has been repeatedly announced by various officials and senior security officials in recent days.
February 10, 2010, 4:18 pm. Taking a cue from their opposition counterparts back in Iran, diaspora activists in France on Tuesday night reportedly spray-painted the slogans “Where is my vote?” and “Down with the dictator” on the outside walls of Iran’s embassy in Paris using green paint.
French Police said the graffiti had been scrubbed clean by mid-morning Wednesday, leaving only smears of green paint, according to Reuters. The activists apparently posted a video of the graffiti on YouTube:
February 10, 2010, 3:40 pm. Mousavi, for his part, declared last week in a forceful interview posted to his official site Kalame.org, that the revolution had “failed to realize its objectives” and that Shah-era “tyranny” remained: “The muzzling of press and media, our overcrowded prisons and the brutal killing of people in the streets in response to their peaceful demands for their rights demonstrate well the existence of roots of dictatorship and autocracy dating from the monarchical regime.”
He went a step further to add that “dictatorship, in the name of religion, is the worst kind,” and hinted at his openness to constitutional revision:“The Green Movement will by no means give up its peaceful and ethical methods in its struggle for regaining the rights of the nation. I’ve said and I say it again: the constitution is not a divine law and it should be open to changes.”
February 10, 2010, 3:36 pm. Iranian state radio and television on Wednesday broadcast footage of Iran’ s Expediency Council chief Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani calling for nationwide participation in Thursday’s 22 Bahman rally. “This year is more sensitive than the previous days. The responsible forces and those who are responsible for the security of the rallies as well as people who participate in the rallies should all be careful so that we have a show of unity in our values at least,” he said.
Thursday, February 11—or 22 Bahman in the Persian calendar—is the most important national holiday in Iran, a day in which the regime celebrates the 1979 revolution that toppled the dictatorship of the country’s Western-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Every year on this date, Iran’s religious and political leaders try to reignite the revolutionary fervor that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. Speeches tout the revolution’s accomplishments. Military parades show off the country’s newest weapons. The airwaves are filled with news and mini-documentaries about the corruption and human-rights abuses of the shah and the sacrifices made by the revolution’s leaders to force him from power.
his year, some of the revolutionary leaders whose sacrifices helped topple the shah three decades ago have promised to hijack the festivities to challenge, if not bring down, the Islamic Republic they helped to create. For more than a month the so-called Green Movement—an ever-widening coalition of young people, liberal political and religious leaders, merchants fed up with the state of the economy, and conservative politicians frightened by the expanding role of the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian politics—has vowed to use the anniversary to mount its most forceful challenge yet to the regime. Unlike previous demonstrations, which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets all over the country, Thursday’s protests are being planned and organized by the presumed leaders of the Green Movement. Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, Ahmadinejad’s two main challengers in last June’s presidential election, have posted defiant messages on their Web sites urging supporters to come out en masse on Thursday, something neither man has done before.
A Month Ago Tunisia, Yesterday Egypt, Today Iran?
Via Andrew Sullivan, back to blogging.
Tehran Bureau liveblog
Scott Lucas at Enduring America liveblog
Alan Cowell at NYT:
Helle Dale at Heritage:
Abe Greenwald at Commentary:
Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs
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