Tag Archives: Max Fisher

What The Hell Is Going On In Libya?

Daily Mail:

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has fled Libya and may be heading for Venezuela, William Hague said today.

The Foreign Secretary said he had seen ‘information’ that suggests Gaddafi is on his way to the South American country – as Libya was up in flames today with reports of around 400 dead.

The dictator was said to have fled as the country, which he has ruled for more than 40 years, was up in flames after anti-government demonstrators breached the state television building and set government property alight.

The country’s diplomats at the UN are calling for Gaddafi to step down. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said that if Gaddafi does not reliqniquish power, ‘the Libyan people will get rid of him’.

But officials in Venezuela, where president Hugo Chavez is an ally of the Libyan dictator, denied any suggestions that Gaddafi was seeking refuge there. Information minister Andres Izarra said the reports were ‘false’ .

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

Because of the country’s severe media restrictions, information out of Libya is extremely difficult to verify. Protesters send reports to Libyan exile groups or to open-source organizers such as Shabab Libya, which then filter through to social or traditional media. On Saturday, Switzerland-based exile groups told Reuters that protesters had completely seized Bayda, also located in the east. In the broken, urgent English common to such dispatches, Shabab Libya reported on Twitter, “Now breaking from #bayda they fought and beat the mercenaries and hanged them in the valleys surrounding bayda. now %100 secure.” Reuters later added that government forces were attempting to retake the town.

Even by the mildest and most reliable accounts out of Libya, the uprising there has been far more violent than any of those across North Africa and the Middle East. Other such demonstrations have emphasized nonviolent occupation, with protesters seizing a central location such as Cairo’s Tahrir Square and holding it against government attempts to disperse them. Libyan protesters began as the others, gathering peacefully in city centers. But over the past week, perhaps in response to the brutal and often fatal government response, the demonstrators have gone from enduring the crackdown to actively fighting back. Matching aggression with aggression, and likely fearing for their lives if they fail, the enraged protesters of Benghazi and elsewhere are attacking security forces and buildings. It’s not that Libya’s protesters are especially violent; the severity of Qaddafi’s crackdown has forced them to choose between going on the offensive or accepting annihilation.

For now, it’s impossible to know for sure whether protesters really did secure Libya’s third-largest city, whether the lush Mediterranean hills outside the city are punctuated with the hanging bodies of security forces, or whether government militias launched a counter-assault that may still be ongoing. But such claims are in line with a pattern of jarringly violent reports out of Libya. Security forces opened fire on a funeral procession in Benghazi, Al Jazeera reports, killing at least 15 mourners. According to BBC News, army snipers are firing indiscriminately at protesters. Libyan social media outlets, which have been several hours ahead of traditional media but may be prone to exaggeration, carry several shocking reports: that protesters have set fire to government buildings in the western city of Yifran, that security forces are raining mortars on civilians in Benghazi, that children are among the dead.

James Ridgeway at Mother Jones:

The Libyan protests have been inspired by the wave of uprisings across North Africa, but they grow out of deep-seated poverty, unemployment, and political repression at the hands of yet another entrenched despot. Whether they will result in Libya achieving the sort of change experienced by Tunisia and Egypt is impossible to say, but early signs indicate that whatever the outcome, a high price is likely to be paid in human life.

Complicating matters is Libya’s unusual position in world affairs. Not long ago it was a pariah nation. But since 9/11, it has wormed its way back into favor with the United States and Europe because Qaddafi joined the war on terror, cooperating in the Lockerbie bomb investigation, coming down hard on al Qaeda, and kicking out terrorists he had once sheltered. At the same time, he has steered Libya into an increasingly powerful position in world politics because of its vast oil reserves. Libya has an especially close relationship with its former colonial master, Italy. It now provides about 20 percent of all Italy’s oil imports and has invested in sizeable amounts in that country’s energy infrastructure including the transnational energy giant ENI.

Along with their energy deals, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Qaddafi have agreed to work together to stem the increasing numbers of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. In addition to those leaving from North Africa, thousands more have been moving up the Red Sea from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and other countries. Their point of entry is Italy–specifically, the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies in the Mediterranean midway between Libya and Sicily.

In 2009, Qaddafi and Berlusconi made an agreement that became part of an open and often vicious campaign against migrants: Libya would try to keep them from leaving in the first place; if they got out, Italy would send them back to Libya without providing them a chance to make asylum claims.

Ed Morrissey:

In Libya, it appears that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi got his answer to the ultimatum delivered last night. He warned of a bloody reprisal by the regime if protestors did not cease. Now that the rebels have called Gaddafi’s bluff, he has to wonder whether the “five million” in his military will respond to his call, or join the protestors in ridding themselves of Libya’s petty dynasty.

Speaking of which, where is Col. Moammar? If he was still in Libya, wouldn’t he be the man to put on television and rally the army to the regime?

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

While events are murky at best, it seems unlikely that Gaddafi’s regime can survive. What will follow it is, at this point, anyone’s guess.

That sets up an interesting comparison. The United States supported Mubarak’s government in Egypt for several decades, militarily and otherwise. Now, the frequently anti-American tone of Egypt’s rebels is often attributed to that support. Many commentators argue that the U.S.’s support of Mubarak was short-sighted, and that it will be our own fault if the government that ultimately emerges in Cairo is anti-American.

Perhaps so. But if that theory is correct, shouldn’t we see a different result right next door, in Libya? The U.S. has never supported Gaddafi; on the contrary, we tried to assassinate him at least once. So does that increase the likelihood that the rebels who detest Gaddafi will be friendly to America when some combination of them take power? On its face, that makes sense; one can draw an analogy to Eastern Europe, where the governments that took power upon the collapse of the Soviet Union were almost uniformly pro-American.

Will the same thing happen in Libya? I don’t know; but history seems to be setting up a laboratory experiment in north Africa.

Dan Drezner:

In Sayf-Al-Islam’s rambling speech last night on Libyan State television, he blamed the current unpleasantness in his country on, as near as I can determine, crazed African LSD addicts.

This isn’t going down as well as Sayf had intended, and Libya seems less stable than 24 hours earlier.  Indeed, Sayf’s off-the-cuff remarks managed to make Hosni Mubarak’s three speeches seem like a model of professionalism, which I would not have thought was possible a week ago.

Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message.  Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S.  It’s like political leaders in the region have discovered blogs just as the young people has moved on to Twitter or something.  [Er, no, that’s the United States–ed.]  Oh, right.

Having just finished a week of intense media whoring, methinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent.  I’ve been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere.  Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another.  That’s a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces.

Andrew Sullivan:

It looks to me as if this is all but over. Ambassadors abroad are resigning right and left. There are no signs of the regime’s authority in the capital, except a few pockets of troops loyal to Qaddafi. Amazing. Look at the map. From Tunisia through Libya to Egypt and Bahrain, regime change has come from below in just a few weeks. Now wonder the King of Jordan is getting a little jumpy.

Can you imagine the mood among the Saudi dictators right now?

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Egypt, In Our Eyes

ABC News:

We’ve compiled a list of all the journalist who have been in some way threatened, attacked or detained while reporting in Egypt.  When you put it all into one list, it is a rather large number in such a short period of time.  (UPDATED as of 2/4 – send us more stories if you get them)

APTN had their satellite dish agressively dismantled, leaving them and many other journalists who rely on their feed point no way to feed material.

 

ABC News international correspondent Christiane Amanpour said that on Wednesday her car was surrounded by men banging on the sides and windows, and a rock was thrown through the windshield, shattering glass on the occupants. They escaped without injury/ (wires)

Another CNN reporter, Hala Gorani, said she was shoved against a fence when demonstrators rode in on horses and camels, and feared she was going to get trampled/ (wires) 

A group of angry Egyptian men carjacked an ABC News crew and threatened to behead them on Thursday in the latest and most menacing attack on foreign reporters trying to cover the anti-government uprising. Producer Brian Hartman, cameraman Akram Abi-hanna and two other ABC News employees / (link)

ABC/Bloomberg’s Lara Setrakian also attacked by protesters

CNN’s Anderson Cooper said he, a producer and camera operator were set upon by people who began punching them and trying to break their camera. Cooper and team were targeted again on Thursday. “Situation on ground in Egypt very tense,” Cooper tweeted Thursday. “Vehicle I was in attacked. My window smashed. All OK.” /  (wires)

A photojournalist for CNN-IBN, Rajesh Bhardwaj, was detained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the site of bloody clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak. He was taken away by the Egyptian Army and later released, but only after his identification card and tapes were destroyed / (link)

 

 

Fox Business Network’s Ashley Webster reported that security officials burst into a room where he and a camera operator were observing the demonstration from a balcony. They forced the camera inside the room. He called the situation “very unnerving” and said via Twitter that he was trying to lay low    / (wires)

Fox News Channel’s foreign correspondent Greg Palkot and producer Olaf Wiig were hospitalized in Cairo after being attacked by protestors.

CBS News’ Katie Couric harassed by protesters   (link)

CBS newsman Mark Strassman said he and a camera operator were attacked as they attempted to get close to the rock-throwing and take pictures. The camera operator, who he would not name, was punched repeatedly and hit in the face with Mace.  / (wires)

CBS News’ Lara Logan, was detained along with her crew by Egyptian police outside Cairo’s Israeli embassy. / (link)

Two New York Times journalists have been arrested. (A Times spokeswoman said that the two journalists were “detained by military police overnight in Cairo and are now free.” )     (link)

Washington Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl wrote Thursday that witnesses say Leila Fadel, the paper’s Cairo bureau chief, and photographer Linda Davidson “were among two dozen journalists arrested this morning by the Egyptian Military Police.  They were later released.”   /   (link)

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow the U.S. began actively seeking exactly one week after deploying Vice President Joe Biden to publicly defend him, is not the first national leader to lose U.S. patronage. Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos alienated Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan with years of brutal rule. Indonesia’s Suharto, Zaire’s Mobutu Seko, and others found that the Americans stopped returning their calls once there was no more Soviet Union against which they could act as bulwarks. Perhaps most famously, South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem ended up in the back of a military personnel carrier where he and his brother were shot, stabbed, and photographed as part of a sudden and U.S.-approved military coup. In all of these cases, the client leaders fell without their patron. But Mubarak, of whose rule U.S. support has been a pillar for 29 years, could yet cling to power. If he does, it’s impossible to know how he will behave, but the rapidly changing internal and external pressures are likely to transform his foreign and domestic policies, and probably not for the better.

The Obama administration, by first calling for Mubarak’s “immediate transition” and then working with the Egyptian military to make that happen, has gone from the Egyptian president’s most important foreign ally to his greatest threat. If Mubarak holds on, he will reemerge into a diplomatic climate nearly the polar opposite of what it was only a week ago. Many in the U.S. and Israel are rightly concerned about where the Muslim Brotherhood, were it to come to power in a post-Mubarak democracy, would steer Egyptian foreign policy. But Mubarak, for whom the U.S. now poses a direct and possibly mortal threat, is virtually guaranteed to move away from the pro-U.S., pro-Israel policies that have been so central to his leadership.

If anything, Mubarak will be tempted to seek out other pariah states and anti-U.S. actors — fortunately for him, the Middle East has a few — to help him bolster against the West’s efforts for his removal. Mubarak could look to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is working to suppress the country’s own protest movement, which he is likely concerned the U.S. might support if it comes close to his ouster. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shown some support for the Egyptian protesters, calling them an “Islamic uprising” in the unlikely hope that’s what they will become. But if Mubarak holds on, some sort of Egypt-Iran partnership could serve the security and economic of both states. If Israel starts to look like a threat, Mubarak could push back by opening its border with Gaza, making it easier for groups such as Hamas to import whatever supplies it might be seeking.

Barry Rubin:

Consider the following chart:

Who in the Middle East could the United States depend on five years ago to support its basic policy goals?
Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey

Who in the Middle East can the United States basically depend on today?
Israel, Iraq (?), Jordan (until next week?), Saudi Arabia

Who in the Middle East is likely to oppose basic U.S. policy goals today?
Egypt (soon), Gaza Strip (Hamas), Iran, Lebanon (Hizballah), Libya, Sudan, Syria. Turkey

Might there be a trend here?

The United States is running out of friends in the Middle East who it can overthrow. I’d love to use the 1930s Germany analogy but it is so excessively cited as to have lost effectiveness. So let’s go to the Soviet analogy. “We were overly spooked by the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania….” Well, you get the idea.

But wait! The United States is not refusing to allow “Islamists to participate in democratic society,” the local regimes are doing so. Perhaps they know something about their own societies.

But wait again! Islamists do participate in elections in Jordan. Of course, the regime there makes sure they lose. So perhaps the United States should step in anhelp the Islamic Action Front wins the next election, all the better to moderate them!  I’m sure (sarcasm) that it will keep the peace treaty with Israel. Then we can keep experimenting until there are no more victims left.

“Obviously, Islam needs to make its peace with modernity and democracy. But the only way this is going to happen is when people speaking for Islam take part in the system.”

Oh, obviously. Except that it is not necessarily obvious to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and the Iraqi insurgents, nor to non-Islamist-member-of-the- pack Syria. Why should one believe that taking part in the system will make them moderate. Is there any evidence for this? Any at all? And, no, Turkey doesn’t prove that. Quite the contrary.

But what really riles me is when Westerners write a sentence like this one:

“It’s incumbent on Islamists who are elected democratically to behave democratically.”

Please contemplate those dozen words. What if they don’t? What are you going to do about it after they are in power? What if they take your concessions but not your advice? The United States conditioned the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in Egypt’s next government on that group’s abandoning violence and supporting “democratic goals.” There is no chance that it will meet those conditions and also no chance that the United States would try to enforce them.

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

The Obama administration is promoting the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, for example, is President Obama’s veiled reference to it in his remarks earlier this week on the “orderly transition” he is pursuing in Egypt: “[T]he process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties.”

The Washington Post reports on the administration’s promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood in “U.S. reexamining its relationship with Muslim Brotherhood opposition group.” It is the Obama administration’s “smart diplomacy” in action, the kind that dismays friends (like Barry Rubin) and heartens enemies (pick your choice). Richard Cohen somewhat unrealistically advises that “Obama should just shut up,” but you get his point.

In his categorization of the types of regimes, Aristotle classifies tyranny as a degraded form of monarchy. The Middle East has thrown up refinements in despotism such as the hereditary thugocracy (Syria) and the mullahcracy (Iran). Indeed, Mubarak’s desire to engineer the succession of his son to the presidency was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. if there is a decent way out of here, it will not be assisted by the foolish optimism that Rubin mocks or by the willful blindness from which Obama suffers.

Juan Cole:

Recently appointed prime minister, Air Force Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, expressed regret for the violence on Thursday and seemed to blame it on partisans in the Interior Ministry of ousted domestic surveillance czar Habib El Adly.

Mubarak also said he was sad to see the violence, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. Without a trace of irony he said he was ready to retire but was afraid that if he stepped down it would cause chaos.

How stupid do they think we are? Mubarak, Shafiq and VP Omar Suleiman almost certainly sat down in a room and authorized the Ministry of Interior to try out that brutal assault on peaceful protesters.

Proof 1: The Interior Ministry in a dictatorship doesn’t go off on rogue missions; these things are tightly controlled from the top.

Proof 2: The regular army stood aside and allowed the goons to attack the demonstrators, allowing them through checkpoints for their murderous mission. Soldiers do what they are ordered to do.

But, what the apologies do suggest is that the government is attempting to distance itself from the Ministry of Interior tactics.

Adm. Mike Mullen on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show referenced Shafiq’s ridiculous ‘apology,’ apparently delivered precisely so that the wool could be pulled over the eyes of the public. The usually canny and astute Stewart did not challenge the absurd ‘apology’ meme.

In an attempt to mollify dissidents, the Shafiq government did move against some former high-level officials, freezing their bank accounts forbidding them to flee abroad. Those former cabinet members (until last week) included Interior Minister Habib Adly, Muhammad Zuhair Girana, former tourism minister, Ahmad al-Maghribi, the former minister of housing, and Ahmad Izz, former high official in the ruling National Democratic Party (the name of which is made up of three lies).

Iason Athanasiades on Aljazeera is speculating that loyalists to these figures in the Interior Ministry and among the street gangs it runs were behind Thursday’s attacks.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

Usually, when mass uprising scrambles the politics of a U.S. ally, politicians blame the nation’s spy apparatus for missing the warning signs. Only when it comes to Egypt, the CIA isn’t having it, vowing that it’s had its watchful eye on potential destabilization for decades. They just might not have known what exactly it would take to loosen Hosni Mubarak’s hold on the country.

“The ingredients of upheaval were there for a long time,” says Paul Pillar, who was the intelligence community’s top Mideast analyst from 2000 to 2005, “but it was impossible to predict in advance what particular catalyzing events would set stuff off.”

Publicly available information, like rapidly expanding opposition Facebook pages, hinted that popular anger in Egypt was bubbling over. The CIA declined to tell Danger Room what specifically it told the Obama administration about the Egyptian protests before last week. But Stephanie O’Sullivan, a longtime CIA official nominated to be intel chief James Clapper’s deputy, told a Senate panel yesterday that the agency secret warned Obama last year that anger at Mubarak’s regime was growing.

Echoing Pillar, Sullivan told senators, “We didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be for that. And that [warning] happened at the end of the last year.” Back then, the agency concluded Mubarak was in an “untenable” situation.

Real talk: the spy service is supposed to provide big warnings when some huge geopolitical development is brewing. But it’s unfair to expect analysts to provide specific dates for when, say, Mubarak faces a breaking point. It also passes the buck away from the Obama administration, which is struggling to figure out exactly what its response to the upheaval is. If the CIA told Obama last year that Mubarak was going to have to fight to stay in power, the obvious follow-up question is what he did with that information.

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Things Fall Apart

Anthony Shadid, David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim at NYT:

The Egyptian government struck back at its opponents on Wednesday, unleashing waves of pro-government provocateurs armed with clubs, stones, rocks and knives in and around Tahrir Square in a concerted effort to rout the protesters who have called for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s near-30-year rule.

After first trying to respond peacefully, the protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails as battles broke out around the square. A makeshift medical clinic staffed by dozens of doctors tended to a steady stream of anti-government protesters, many bleeding from head wounds.

The Egyptian health minister, Ahmed Sameh Farid, said that 596 people have been injured in the battles in Tahrir Square and that one man was killed when he fell off a bridge, The Associated Press reported.

As the two sides to the fight exchanged volleys, the military restricted itself mostly to guarding the Egyptian Museum and using water cannons to extinguish flames stoked by the firebombs. And on Wednesday night, state media broadcast an order from the government for all protesters to leave the square.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

A plume of thick white smoke is emerging right now in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, an epicenter of Egypt’s massive protests, as “running battles” have broken out between the anti-regime protesters and pro-government forces. The Egyptian Army has yet to intervene. It would appear the government of Hosni Mubarak, on the ropes for the past eight days, has begun its crackdown.

Even as he pledged to step down in September, Mubarak told his police forces, the bulwark of his 30-year rule, to “shoulder its responsibilities” and “arrest the outlaws” yesterday. Within the hour, previously unseen supporters of Mubarak fought with protesters in Alexandria. Now it’s spread to the massive crowds at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where the demonstrators weren’t placated by Mubarak’s speech.

It’s all happening right now, live on Al Jazeera, and it’s not pretty. Protesters are throwing rocks at one another, and eyewitnesses report that people they believe are plainclothes police are wielding knives, sticks and “daggers.” The past week of anti-regime protests has been notable for their nonviolence. Now, pro-regime demonstrators are charging the square on horseback and camelback — two protesters even pulled someone off a camel. It’s worth noting that the regime has turned the Internet back on, as Renesys reports, right in time for its supporters to mobilize.

People are rushing one another near the square, where “pro-and anti-Mubarak forces are coming face to face in the side streets,” according to Al Jazeera’s on-scene correspondent. “I can see people running past me with blood on their shirts… No one knows where to go, who’s with who.” No one seems to know what caused the white smoke.

What about the Egyptian Army, which won accolades from the U.S. for not suppressing the anti-government demonstrations? It’s taking a hands-off approach, telling demonstrators that since everyone involved is a civilian, soldiers are not going to take sides. That’s according to anti-regime demonstrator Salma Eltarzi, who told Al Jazeera that she sees Mubarak’s game plan at work.

“We are in disbelief. We cannot believe [Mubarak] is so low,” she told the network. “The Army is very clear: you are both civilians and you cannot beat civilians. This is the game. He wants it to seem like the people are fighting each other so he has an excuse — ‘I was going to leave, but the people’s needs demand that I stay.”

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the live-blog

Taylor Marsh:

The contrast to Pres. Obama’s speech last night and what has erupted the last two hours in Egypt is stark and reveals the lack of control the American President has over the situation.

Coming after Mubarak’s speech yesterday, what’s been playing out this morning has been frightening to watch.

Curfew is approaching, “a very intense battle” is how it’s being described on Al Jazeera English.

One person interviewed in the last half hour used the words “investigations” for Pres. Mubarak.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the violence.

…but on it rages.

Patrick Appel at Sullivan’s place:

Sonia Verma of the Globe and Mail is tweeting from the scene. Her most recent tweets, blocked into paragraphs:

Pro mubarak supporters jumping onto tanks. I am watching one have a very long talk with a soldier. Standing at one of the exits to tahrir. pro mubarak supporters standing on army tanks.

Hundreds of pro dem protesters pouring out of tahrir as things heat up. Groups of men mobilizing, arming themselves with bricks and sticks. Crowds pushing to get out of tahrir square. People saying they will use bricks as weapons. People digging up bricks in tarhir square. Everyone on edge today. Very different vibe than yesterday.

The Guardian:

Very ominous information coming out of Cairo, with reports of gunfire. Al Jazeera suggests they might be warning shots to keep people away from the museum, which is being defended by a number of military vehicles.

Mackey flags the reaction of an Egyptian blogger:

In a biting, angry and harrowing commentary on the clashes unfolding in Cairo on Wednesday, the Egyptian blogger who writes as Sandmonkey has called the appearance of regime supporters on Cairo’s streets, igniting violent clashes, a ploy by President Hosni Mubarak to create chaos and justify his continued rule.

Doug Mataconis:

Additionally, al-Jazeera and other news sources have posted pictures of police ID’s taken from the “pro-Mubarak” demonstrators, lending credibility to the theory that this is little more than a police operation designed to break the back of the protest and, of course, inflict bloodshed.

The pro-Mubarak crowd has also apparently turned its violence on journalists covering the protests:

Anderson Cooper and his crew have been attacked by supporters of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, according to CNN.

CNN’s Steve Brusk tweeted that “Anderson said he was punched 10 times in the head as pro-Mubarak mob surrounded him and his crew trying to cover demonstration.”

This is only going to get worse. More to come, I’m sure.

Ed Morrissey:

Amanpour says that Barack Obama will continue to push for a quick resolution, but that may have to change. She points out that the nation’s mainstream isn’t necessarily out on the streets. The Egyptian middle class may well want a more orderly transition, perhaps especially after seeing the violence in the streets today, and may end up backing Mubarak’s plan to restore order, at least in the short term. The White House had better take care not to get too far ahead of itself.

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Hosni, Hosni, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye

Hugh Hewitt:

Five news streams worth following today:

al Jazeera

The Guardian

The New York Times’ The Lede.

The Wall Street Journal,

Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog, especially this post by Pete Wehner on a conversation with Paul Wolfowitz

The enormous crowds will be matched by endless torrents of commentary by folks who don’t know the players or the possible outcomes, but who are nevertheless obliged to take their turns in the anchor chairs. Yes the crowds are massive, and Egypt is an ancient country, but what is going to happen if Mubarak decamps, and is it good for Egypt, the U.S. and Israel?

Be sure as well to read the exchanges I had yesterday with Robert Kaplan (transcript here) and Andrew McCarthy (transcript here.)

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

8:46 a.m. EST / 3:46 p.m. Cairo As Egyptian protesters rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in numbers that the New York Times estimate to be in excess of 100,000 and Al Jazeera pegged at one million, it’s still not clear if they will succeed in ousting President Hosni Mubarak and securing legitimate elections. While protesters in Tahrir Square are at their largest numbers yet, and while they enjoy a pledge from the military not to fire on civilians, Mubarak remains in power, his ministries guarded by the heavy-handed internal security forces. Key events to watch today will be whether the protesters push beyond Tahrir Square, what happens with the similar protest movement in Jordan, and whether the maneuvering within Mubarak’s inner circle leads the president toward a quiet departure.

David D. Kirkpatrick and Mark Landler at NYT:

President Obama has told the embattled president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, that he should not run for another term in elections scheduled for the fall, effectively withdrawing American support for its closest Arab ally, according to American diplomats in Cairo and Washington.

State television said that Mr. Mubarak would address the nation Tuesday evening, and it was expected that he would announce that he would not run for another term.

But it was far from certain that the concession would placate protesters in the streets of Cairo, who have made the president’s immediate and unconditional resignation a bedrock demand of their movement.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

More to come soon, but my strong hunch is that the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square will be satisfied by nothing less than Mubarak’s ouster. The Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl relayed via Twitter that Mubarak actually refused Wisner’s counsel, and the LA Timesquotes a source saying that Wisner’s message was “plainly rebuffed.”

If it’s indeed true that Mubarak is announcing that he won’t seek a 6th term — and nobody other than Al Arabiya is reporting that right now [UPDATE: Now Egyptian state TV says it will be a statement, not a speech] — it’s more than a little awkward that U.S. officials have already leaked his decision to the New York Times. Not that I have much sympathy for the old tyrant, but I don’t think the Obama team wants to be seen dictating the course of events.

That said, if Mubarak does indeed announce his retirement tonight, you can expect some fingerpointing at Obama for “losing” a key U.S. ally, thanklessly “throwing him under the bus,” and so on.

I wonder if the people making that argument will have the courage to spell out what itimplies: They would have preferred to see the Egyptian police and military kill and injure more peaceful demonstrators on the streets of a major Arab capital, on international satellite television, using U.S.-made weapons.

Because let’s be honest: that’s what it would have taken for Mubarak to remain in power. His military was refusing to enforce a curfew or fire on protesters; his police had mysteriously fled after brutally attacking them. The morality of this position aside, can you imagine the kind of blowback the United States would face in the Arab world, let alone everywhere else?

Ed Morrissey:

Fox News reports that Hosni Mubarak will address the Egyptian people on national television in a few minutes and will announce his retirement at the end of his term in office.  At the moment, Fox is just running this as a headline on their website, but Reuters reports that the speech is scheduled to take place without reporting on its content:

A million people, maybe more, rallied across Egypt on Tuesday, clamoring for President Hosni Mubarak to give up power, piling pressure on a leader who has towered over Middle East politics for 30 years to make way.

As Al Arabiya television reported that the 82-year-old former general was about to broadcast a speech, many believed the moment had come when he would announce his departure. It was not clear whether that might be immediate. Al Arabiya said it had a report he would not run in an election due in September.

The powerful, U.S.-supported army watched benignly over the biggest protests Egypt has ever seen and attention was quickly turning to what comes after Mubarak. More military rule, an Islamist surge or a reform-minded coalition for national unity all seem possible. So, too, do both order and chaos.

Why else would Mubarak speak today at the apex of the protests, with over a million people in the streets of Cairo?  It certainly sounds like some sort of concession, although Mubarak may still think he can hang onto power and survive the crisis.  The US apparently doesn’t think so, as it has ordered non-essential personnel out of the country.

Michael Rubin at American Enterprise Institute:

Where does this leave the United States? Mubarak’s departure will be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. As difficult as President Obama may have found crisis management during the last several days, the trickiest part is still to come. Rather than simply observe the crisis, the White House now will have to avoid tripping mines laid by the Brotherhood as it works to undercut Brotherhood attempts to consolidate control.

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What The Hell Is Going On In Tunisia?

Andrew Sullivan has a great many posts on Tunisia. Video above is graphic.

Live blogs: The Guardian, Scott Lucas at Enduring America, BBC News

Paul Behringer at National Interest:

“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 Times also reports that his effort to sooth the public’s anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

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.

Robert Mackey in NYT:

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.

Jillian C. York, on 1/13:

An email from Youssef Gaigi:

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.

And

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.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

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.

Daniel Larison responds to Lynch:

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.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

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,

Kamel Morjane

This is a fast-moving story. The New York Times reports 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.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

Elizabeth Dickson at Foreign Policy:

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.

Mahar Arar at The Huffington Post:

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.

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And Now For News Other Than Sarah Palin…

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up. Fisher:

Lebanon’s government is on the verge of collapse as Hezbollah, the paramilitary group and national political party, threatens to withdraw from the shaky government coalition. At the heart of the political dispute is Hezbollah’s objection to an ongoing United Nations investigation that is expected to indict Hezbollah members for the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri’s son, current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, met today with President Obama to discuss the political crisis. Obama is getting involved after negotiations, sponsored by Syria and Saudi Arabia, failed to resolve the dispute. As is so often the case with Lebanon, the situation is tenuous and the dangers of escalation are high

Tony Karon at Time:

Even as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday for urgent talks over the future of his government, Hizballah decided to pull the plug on that government and leave Hariri’s status uncertain. Eleven ministers from the Shi’ite Islamist party and its allies resigned from the Cabinet and demanded the formation of a new government, leaving Hariri unable to govern. The collapse of yet another fragile consensus government once again raises the specter of Lebanon’s descending into a new cycle of sectarian violence — but it could also simply be a hardball negotiating tactic by Hizballah to cement its position and highlight the limited power of its enemies, including the U.S., to manage events in Lebanon.

The Hizballah walkout was prompted by the collapse of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria under which the Lebanese government would distance itself from the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005. Although Syria was initially widely blamed for the killing, it has been reported that the U.N. tribunal will in fact indict members of Hizballah, the Iran-backed movement whose militia remains the single most powerful military force in Lebanon, and whose electoral support in the Shi’ite community gives it a central role in government. Hizballah had warned for months that it would not allow the arrest of any of its members, and branded the U.N. tribunal a Western-Israeli plot to undermine the movement. The U.S. has insisted throughout the crisis that the interests of political stability cannot be allowed to impede the pursuit of justice in the Hariri murder.

Richard Spencer at The Telegraph:

Lebanon is becoming the Berlin Wall of the new Cold War: the frightening, potentially nuclear proxy struggle between allies of the West and Iran.

The West came to West Berlin’s short-term rescue with the 1948 airlift, but then could do little but stand and watch as the Soviet Union boxed Germany’s former capital into a corner for four decades.

Now Lebanon’s democratically elected government has had its legs taken away from under it by Hizbollah, Iran’s local front organisation. The country faces its own division, stand-off and stagnation, if not worse.

Like Berlin after the Second World War, Lebanon is a fractured place, with the major world powers – in this case, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran/Syria – having their own local front men.

Saad Hariri, the prime minister, inherited the country’s largest fortune when his father, Rafiq, was murdered in 2005. His enemies were Syria and Hizbollah: both have been blamed. Hariri, a Sunni, made his fortune in Saudi Arabia which has backed him and then his son ever since. The Saudis, of course, loathe Iran.

Hariri’s not without support. He won the last election – though, rather like Northern Ireland, that only has the effect of rearranging the seats around the power-sharing cabinet table. He has majority support from Middle Eastern governments, including the big Gulf oil players. And, of course, he has America behind him.

Hizbollah made itself extremely popular after taking on Israel in 2006. But that popularity may have peaked – many Lebanese and others can see the danger of having a separate armed militia pursuing its own agenda. No-one wants a civil war, while if starts a conflict with Israel, it won’t exactly be taking a vote from the people who will be on the receiving end of Israeli air force strikes.

Scaremongers say that war would bring in Syria on its side – but does Syria, which has good self-preservatory instincts these days, really think that is a good idea?

Mark Memmott at NPR

Qifa Nabki:

The current crisis has its roots in Hizbullah and AMAL’s cabinet walkout of late 2006, which led to over a year and a half of government paralysis, a huge downtown sit-in and protest, escalating street violence, the May 7 clashes, and, eventually, the Doha Agreement. The opposition’s principal demand at that stage was greater representation in cabinet — the so-called “blocking third” — so as to be able to meaningfully block legislation proposed by Hariri’s majority March 14 coalition. More fundamentally, the opposition was seeking a “nuclear option”: the ability to bring down the government in precisely this kind of situation, whereby Saad al-Hariri and his allies would remain committed to supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon all the way until the release of indictments.

If the opposition resigns later today, they will have finally exercised the option that they fought to gain between 2006 and 2008.

Many questions come to mind:

  1. Why now? What prompted the breakdown of the Saudi-Syrian initiative that was supposedly drawing close to some kind of temporary solution in Lebanon? Did the negotiations fall apart as a result of US pressure (as some are suggesting) or was the whole thing a charade from the beginning?
  2. Where do the local parties go from here? Will the opposition call for protests and strikes in an effort to display popular support for their call to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL? How will March 14th respond?
  3. When will the STL release its indictments? Rumors suggest that this could be imminent, but we are unlikely to learn the content of the indictments for weeks, given that the pre-trial judge will probably review them privately.
  4. Finally, and more crassly, who will come out on top in this confrontation between March 14 (and its allies in Washington and Riyadh on one hand) and March 8 (and its allies in Damascus and Tehran)? Are we headed for a “Doha 2″ agreement?

Let’s not jump the gun. The opposition still needs to make good on its threat. Until then, the floor is open for discussion.

Roger Runnigen at Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama said the collapse of Lebanon’s unity government today shows Hezbollah’s fear of a united country acting for all Lebanese people.

“The efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people,” Obama said in a statement issued after he held a private meeting at the White House with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

 

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Reporting In From Our Sudan Bureau…

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up.

President Barack Obama at NYT:

NOT every generation is given the chance to turn the page on the past and write a new chapter in history. Yet today — after 50 years of civil wars that have killed two million people and turned millions more into refugees — this is the opportunity before the people of southern Sudan.

Over the next week, millions of southern Sudanese will vote on whether to remain part of Sudan or to form their own independent nation. This process — and the actions of Sudanese leaders — will help determine whether people who have known so much suffering will move toward peace and prosperity, or slide backward into bloodshed. It will have consequences not only for Sudan, but also for sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

The historic vote is an exercise in self-determination long in the making, and it is a key part of the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war in Sudan. Yet just months ago, with preparations behind schedule, it was uncertain whether this referendum would take place at all. It is for this reason that I gathered with leaders from Sudan and around the world in September to make it clear that the international community was united in its belief that this referendum had to take place and that the will of the people of southern Sudan had to be respected, regardless of the outcome.

In an important step forward, leaders from both northern and southern Sudan — backed by more than 40 nations and international organizations — agreed to work together to ensure that the voting would be timely, peaceful, free and credible and would reflect the will of the Sudanese people. The fact that the voting appears to be starting on time is a tribute to those in Sudan who fulfilled their commitments. Most recently, the government of Sudan said that it would be the first to recognize the south if it voted for independence.

Now, the world is watching, united in its determination to make sure that all parties in Sudan live up to their obligations. As the referendum proceeds, voters must be allowed access to polling stations; they must be able to cast their ballots free from intimidation and coercion. All sides should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or provocative actions that could raise tensions or prevent voters from expressing their will.

Baobab at The Economist:

Sudanese in the often remote countryside have seen relatively few benefits so far but in the capital, Juba, life has changed dramatically. In 2005 South Sudan’s leaders lived in tents, ate on the ground and had almost no means to communicate with their people or the outside world. Today, Juba is booming. It does not yet match the glitz of Khartoum but it is no longer quite such a backwater. Its airport is still housed in a shack without air-conditioning but some 80 flights take off and land every day now, and a new terminal building is rising by the landing strip.

New restaurants and bars are sprouting up everywhere. Government ministers (many of whom have swapped their uniforms for sharp business suits) like to go to Da Vinci, an Italian eatery on the banks of the Nile. Foreign aid workers prefer Logali House, known for its fast internet access. East Africans gather at Home & Away for Thai food. Ukrainian and Russian pilots can be found at Oasis Camp and Sudanese hipsters, many of them returning from abroad, go to Havana, a bar set up by some of the so-called Cuban Jubans, a group of south Sudanese who went off to see Fidel a few decades ago and are drifting back now.

But residents also report that crime has increased. It is mostly opportunistic and suspicions tends to fall on the growing community of slum-dwellers. Muggings and armed robberies are common and aid agencies impose midnight to sunrise curfews on their expatriate employees. Most embassies and UN sites are heavily guarded with razor wire on top of their high walls. The Warrior private-security company is doing good business. Government security, by comparison, is surprisingly lax. Anyone can wander into the parliament and it probably wouldn’t be that hard to drive on to the airfield.

Still, traffic policemen have been swamping the roads of the capital in the last few weeks. Apparently they are recruits from a new police academy who have graduated but were kept on in Juba to vote in the referendum (since they had registered there). At times two or three of them guard one road turn-off, stopping traffic to allow a single car to pull out. Most roads are still unpaved and turn into terrible bogs when it rains so having a 4×4 is very useful. Traffic can be surprisingly busy. New cars are rolling into town every day, especially expensive ones including Hummers. Drivers are expensive too. Having your own chauffeur will set you back $100 a day. A few years ago, when cars were scarcer, it was $50 a trip no matter how short. Those working in Juba must be hoping the same will happen to prices for private gyms. One place quotes $1,000 a month for membership. There isn’t much choice.

Dan Morrison at Slate:

Efforts to secure the referendum have taken a nasty turn for some Arab residents of the south, however. More than 4 million people registered to vote, among them a farmer named Adam Ismail, but Ismail won’t be placing his fingerprint on a paper ballot this week.

A resident of a disputed region called Fokhar on Sudan’s north-south border in Upper Nile state, Ismail and more than 1,000 other Arabs have abandoned their homes and fields and fled to the north after a campaign of intimidation by southern soldiers.

The Arab tribes of Fokhar have long enjoyed good relations with their neighbors from the Dinka tribe, Ismail said, and the locality even includes a few mixed families, but the Arabs have been viewed with hostile suspicion by local commanders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

A campaign of intimidation, including arrests and interrogations, night visits by uniformed gunmen, and the shooting death of one member of the community, escalated last November, after local Arabs began registering to vote. Nearly 10 percent of the community has fled north to White Nile state, abandoning their fields and some livestock.

“They were threatening us to not vote for unity,” Ismail told me by telephone. “It was our right to register, and we all registered—that’s why this is happening.” Ismail’s family, and nearly 250 other families of the Shukriya tribe, are beginning their seventh week in camps north of the border. Their makeshift shelters are taking on signs of permanence. It is a rare and unfortunate turn of the Sudanese wheel—Arabs dispossessed by African gunmen because of their religion and tribe.

Maggie Fick at Foreign Policy:

Still, there is a danger in celebrating too early. Voters may call for an independent Southern Sudan as they cast their ballots this week, but the means by which the new country would split off is still subject to difficult negotiations and thorny details. There is no agreement over a border, citizenship, the sharing of natural resources, and one contentious border region called Abyei. So while its people are celebrating, Southern Sudan’s leaders are eager to get back to the negotiating table with Khartoum, where a long agenda awaits after the voting finishes. If international attention wanes after the votes are cast, those negotiations could easily take a turn for the worse.

It would be impossible for there not be a “hangover” following the announcement of the results of the ballot, which will not be certified and officially announced until Feb. 6 at the earliest, according to the referendum commission. The voting here in Juba has captured international attention. News crews from around the world have flooded the city, usually a relatively quiet capital with an expatriate community made up mostly of aid workers and frontier businessmen.

There was also a huge diplomatic push to get to this moment. Last fall, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration ramped up its efforts to ensure that the voting was carried off on time. The White House sent its special envoy, Scott Gration, as well as a seasoned Africa hand from the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton Lyman, to do the diplomatic legwork on the ground. A high-level meeting in New York during the U.N. General Assembly in late September ensured that the international community was acting in lockstep — and around the clock — to help Sudan hold the referendum on time and in peace.

But the spotlight may well lift after the last voters go to polls later this week — at exactly the moment when the politics of secession will become even more fraught. From the moment the results are known, the clock starts ticking on independence talks: The African Union-brokered negotiations between the ruling party in Khartoum and the governing party in the south — now on hold while the voting takes place — have to be completed by the summer. The 2005 north-south peace agreement governing the referendum calls for an “interim period” between the voting and secession, to expire on July 9, 2011. This is also the date the south will declare independence if the referendum passes.

John Avlon at Daily Beast:

Reports of the violence have thus far failed to dampen the hopeful tone of Sunday’s voting. But serious hurdles await the fledgling state. A new government will need to be formed, and official independence will not be granted until July 9. This gives the north at least six months to disrupt the transition and derail the secession after the international camera crews depart. And it’s anybody’s guess whether Monday’s clashes portend greater conflict.

While President Bashir has earned a reputation as an untrustworthy negotiator, he recently has said repeatedly that he will accept the results of the referendum. In a telephone call on Sunday with reporter Ellen Knickmeyer on behalf of The Daily Beast, Rabie Abdullati Obeid, a senior member of the president’s National Congress Party, reiterated that pledge. “No, no, no, there’s not any possibility of war,” Obeid said, speaking from Khartoum. “Whatever the case, whatever the outcome of the referendum, be it secession or unity, there’s no inclination to war.”

Nonetheless, a contentious issue remains in the fate of the still-contested border state of Abyei. In closed-door meetings, tribal leaders made it clear that their people’s allegiance is with the south, though they are legally barred from participating in the referendum. Their frustration could result in a popular declaration of affiliation with the south at any time, which could in turn provoke an attack. Tribal proxy wars have proved a devastatingly effective tactic for the north in the past, with the town of Abyei entirely destroyed as recently as 2008.

“If the north thinks they could do something and get away with it without dramatic serious implications, they are making the biggest mistake of a lifetime,” Senator Kerry told me before he left Sudan on Sunday afternoon. “I think they know that. I think both sides are committed to avoiding a war. But sometimes things happen on the ground that can spiral out of control.”

Mindful of such risks, Clooney and Prendergast have organized a privately financed satellite project that provides real-time imaging of the Sudanese north-south border to interested global citizens from their computers. With its ability to keep public attention focused on any troop build-up along the border, this new tool is an example of the kind of innovation and continued international commitment that will be necessary to complete the peaceful transition of Southern Sudan to independence.

Even given the many challenges ahead—and with the balance of the week’s polling activity still to come—one could not help but savor this first day in Southern Sudan’s civic resolve, for it represented the at least temporary triumph of hope over hate. One-time killing fields are being transformed into a fledgling democracy that promises to be an ally of the United States, with English as its official language. This story is far from over, the more so since the world cannot afford to turn the page assuming a happy ending. But it was a day of unique, hard-won, and memorable promise, as Valentino Achak Deng reminded me: “It’s like the people in the United States almost 300 years ago,” he said. “We are determined to be a nation of our own.”

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