Middle East

Arab Spring Update

Where does the Arab Spring currently stand?

The Arab spring began with the self immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2011. This set off a catalogue of events which led to mass protests eventually bringing to an end the brutal dictatorship of Zine El Abadine Ben Ali. This then spread to Egypt, where many marched to Tahrir square and occupied it calling for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, who also eventually fell. The call for change then spread to Libya, where the West militarily intervened and the quick gains of the rebels of Benghazi have given way to a protracted struggle. Protests then began in the South of Syria and gained momentum which has led to a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime. As all of this was going on the Muslim of Yemen came onto the streets and have been calling for the removal of Ali Abdullah-Saleh. Massive demonstrations have also taken place in Bahrain, with the Pearl Roundabout in Manama becoming a symbol of the protesters. After a violent crackdown by the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Saudi Arabia under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent around 1000 of its own troops to protect the regime from falling.

For the moment there has been no regime change in the Muslim world but changes in leadership. In Tunisia and Egypt the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak remain in place, even though the leaders themselves are now out of power.

An intense struggle has broken out between the US and Britain to take advantage of the instability on the one hand, whilst in the other hand to protect their own agents who have served them well for so long. The Anglo-American struggle has been most intense in Libya and Yemen.

Whilst the US and Britain are competing with each other they are unified on hijacking the sincere intentions of the ummah for change through labelling the Arab spring as a call for democracy and more Western values. The West through its media attempted to drown out any calls for Islam. In Libya the Benghazi rebels were calling for Islam to be central theme in Libya after the removal of Gaddafi, this has however now been diluted, as many individuals who defected from Gaddafi’s regime joined the Benghazi rebels and have called for Western intervention in the country.

The likelihood of Islamic groups and Islam returning to the region is causing many upcoming and promised reforms and elections to be delayed as Islamic groups would gain significantly in any elections.

What is the evidence for the Anglo-American struggle?

In Libya the US has taken advantage of the inability by both France and Britain to deploy the necessary military capability to overthrow Gaddafi, it has made both nations reliant upon US firepower and this has led to the US shaping the conflict. The US even delayed the initial sorties in order that it could make contact with the Benghazi rebels and lure them away form Britain and France. There has been no unified approach to building an alternative leadership to Gaddafi and all the powers involved in Libya have individually contacted the rebels from Benghazi. The US has only recently recognised the Benghazi National Transitional Council (NTC) as official representatives of Libya.

In Yemen the British Deputy Foreign Secretary for Middle Eastern affairs Evan Louis while meeting the Yemeni Ambassador in London on 24th November 2009 clarified regarding the situation in Yemen: “What is happening in Yemen is a proxy war.” The US has used the war on terror to undermine Ali Abdullah-Saleh by accusing Yemen of being a hub for Al Qaeeda, Ali Abdullah-Saleh attempted to appease the US with a host of security guarantees which allowed the US to carry out drone attacks in the country. The uprising has given the US the opportunity to remove Saleh, who has however dug in his heals with the support of Britain and in the face of demands by his own people to leave. He has agreed on many occasions to a transition deal – led by the Gulf Cooperation council (GCC) – another US tool, but has constantly backtracked. The US has continually called for the immediate transition of power in Yemen, whilst Britain has stopped at reforms and has also deployed military assets near the embattled nation.

Where does the revolution currently stand in Egypt?

Once the US decided to turn its back on Hosni Mubarak it was just a matter of time before he was physically forced from power. What has occurred in Egypt is that the architecture Mubarak and his predecessors constructed still remains in place. Effectively an 82-year-old man, who wanted to have his son appointed as his successor, was booted out by the army. Except for Mubarak, the army remains in charge of Egypt. An army that is heavily financed and trained by America, whose leaders: Chief of Staff Lt.Gen. Sami Annan and Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi were in constant contact with the US throughout the uprising.

On assuming power the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) suspended the constitution whilst both houses of parliament were dissolved, they also declared the military would rule for six months until elections could be held. The prior cabinet would continue to serve as a caretaker government until a new one was formed. No change occurred in relations with the US and Israel, these remain intact.

A constitutional referendum held in March 2011 saw only a 41% turnout to limit presidential terms amongst a host of proposals, many of the groups who initially protested against Mubarak boycotted the vote as it did not go far enough. A vote on a new constitution is yet to take place and this is complicated by the elections to elect a new government.

Those calling for elections first, believe the expected gains will wield greater influence over the writing of the new constitution, this would benefit the Muslim brotherhood greatly. However many of the secular groups want a committee chosen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to draft the constitution and then hold elections, giving them more time to prepare and gain more seats in the new parliament. This would protect US interests in ensuring no group gains a sizable share of seats in parliament and thus have a significant say in any future coalition parliament.

How much of a threat are the Muslim Brotherhood to US interests in Egypt?

Whilst the Muslim brotherhood are the largest group in Egypt and yield immense power, they have operated from a position of weakness. They have gone out of their way to highlight they are not really calling for Islam and have attempted to appease the global concern about Islam in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood have set up the Freedom and Justice Party and insisted that the Party will be completely separate from the parent organisation. This new party has also stated that it would be prepared to enter into a coalition government with any of the other parties. Hilaray Clinton has said that the Obama administration was “continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that have existed on and off for about five or six years.”

Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in the Muslim world said “I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought, the Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem.” He confirmed that US intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with many other radical groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood represents no threat to US plans and their pragmatism will in all likelihood lead to deeper and wider engagement and thus protect US interests.

Why has the Western coalition been unable to remove Gaddafi?

The US, France and Britain have differences over the operational aspects of the invasion in achieving their goal of regime change. Prior to intervention the French and the British wanted the US to carry the main burden of intervention as Europe is going through a period of austerity and is making large cuts in defence budgets. Whilst the US led the initial air sorties, this was transferred over to NATO, which required both France and Britain to contribute more towards the intervention. France, Britain and the US, who are all leading the military intervention, are now confronted with the reality that the forces they have deployed to Libya are incompatible with the political goals they want to achieve.

The Western coalition remains vague on the post-Gaddafi scenario. The Western coalition has gone far beyond maintaining no fly zones and is actively attempting to create the conditions needed to oust Gaddafi and create regime change. Gaddafi has dominated Libya for so long, there is no other organised polity that can take over after him.

The Benghazi rebels, whilst brave, have been unable to form into a cohesive group that can impose its writ on the country. The West believed their air sorties would be sufficient with the Benghazi rebels leading the ground attack – this has been a complete failure. The Muslims of Benghazi are united in their opposition to Gaddafi but are not a hardened experienced military force. The initial quick gains were largely due to defections and as a result the rebel forces have been unable to keep hold of their early gains. The Benghazi rebels are not composed of enough trained and capable soldiers. The rebels have for the moment proven to be unable to hold out against Gaddafi’s forces. Their problem is not one that close air support can solve. Stratfor outlined “It is a problem of basic cohesion, organization, military proficiency, battlefield communications and leadership. So far, it appears that the extent of this problem is beyond anything even Western special operations forces teams trained to provide those things might possibly achieve anytime soon.”

How much influence does the US have in Libya?

The US has viewed the instability in Libya as an opportunity to gain influence in the country. It has made use of Europe’s inability to go it alone in removing Gaddafi to steal Libya from Europe and Britain. However the US has played a weak hand in Libya due to having little influence in Libya as it has traditionally been European territory. The US strategy appears to be to delay matters which make Europe ever more reliant on US fire power, this stalling then allows the US to cultivate contact with the rebels. America has worked to contact the protestors as was announced by Hilary Clinton. A senior European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post and to avoid antagonizing the Americans, said that Obama’s eagerness to turn over command of the Libyan air operation to NATO in late February and the withdrawal of US fighter planes from ground-strike missions, had undermined the strength of their united front against Gaddafi. The longer the war continues the more likely the Benghazi rebels will turn to the US to topple Gaddafi rather than the European powers.

Why does the West not just place combat troops in Libya?

This is very unpopular in most Western countries as it has the possibility of making Libya Europe’s Afghanistan. However this option looks more and more likely by the facts on the ground irrespective of the rhetoric coming out of London, Washington and Paris. France, Italy and Britain have already announced they will send small teams of military officers to help train Libya’s opposition forces, this could potentially be the beginning of foreign ground forces. The departure of three ships carrying 600 marines on route to Cyprus in May by Britain on a mission supposedly with nothing to do with Libya, on a previously planned training exercise cannot be discounted and their position and capabilities as a naval infantry mean that they can be called upon in a contingency.

Why does the West not just assassinate Gaddafi?

This would require a huge increase in hostilities in targeting Gaddafi, or a ballistic missile to target a wide area where Gaddafi would most likely be hiding. Gaddafi has defiantly paraded through the streets of Tripoli, giving the Western coalition more than enough opportunities to take him out, but the West has not taken such opportunities. This option has not been taken as of yet as the post – Gaddafi regime has not been constructed. It will also include large civilian casualties which would be used by the Western powers to undermine one other.

What is currently going on in Yemen?

The US has for long worked to oust Ali Abdullah-Saleh from Yemen, especially as he has remained loyal to Britain. With the US intensifying pressure on Yemen after 9/11 Yemen and Britain have attempted to appease the US by presenting someone satisfactory to the US to take over after Saleh and by agreeing to a whole host of security guarantees that would allow the US to use Yemen as a military outpost just like Pakistan.

However Saleh has either detained or killed many of his political adversaries, therefore none of his adversaries remain capable of coming to power. With the economic situation dire and Iran mobilising, arming and funding the Houthi’s in the North, Saleh turned to the Saudis who are apprehensive about Iranian involvement in the country. With the Arab spring in full swing many Muslims took to the streets to call for change, Saleh responded with equally brutal force.

As events reached an impasse starting in April, Saleh agreed to a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – brokered deal which included Saleh giving up the presidency and agreeing a transition deal only to back away hours before the scheduled signing three times. After the third time, the GCC suspended efforts. The Economist stateded as far back as 2002: “Two decades after the formation of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), all six members co-operate more closely with America on defence matters than with each other.” Soon after Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribe, one of the most powerful tribes in the country, declared support for the opposition and his armed supporters came into conflict with loyalist security forces in the capital Sana’a.

The US was unable to use the uprising to oust Saleh and it appears Britain was able to keep its man in power.

Why has Ali Abdul Saleh left the country?

Ali Abdul Saleh did not leave the country out of his own free will, but due to a near-successful assassination attempt. Whilst he survived and left for Saudi Arabia, it appears the US has finally removed him from power. The attack has reportedly left Saleh with burns covering 40% of his body. An improvised explosive device (IED) was used in the presidential compound mosque when Saleh was present and not some sort of mortar round or a tank-guided missile as originally thought.

In a tactical assessment of the attack Stratfor’s Vice President of Tactical Intelligence, Scott Stewart said: “it was done by someone who knew Saleh’s routine. It was done by someone who knew the compound. Another thing to remember is that there have been hostilities going on now for weeks between Saleh’s supporters and his opponents and the protesters. Because of this, because of the exchange of fire that has happened and the hostilities, the guard at this presidential palace compound would have been up. This indicates to us that it is likely that this was an inside job.”
This definitely benefitted the US, which makes it all the more possible it was orchestrated by them.

What is the international aspect to Yemen?

The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for the US and any power will always represent an important strategic waterway. Over 30% of all crude oil and over 10% of global trade pass through this region. The US has for long wanted to establish a permanent presence in the strategic waterways of the Gulf of Aden. There has been a heavy presence of foreign naval warships in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somalia coastline. There are ships from the US Navy Fifth Fleet in the region, which has become the centre of numerous hijackings of international ships. Interestingly mostly European ships have been hijacked, no US ships have been hijacked, which are present in large numbers in the area. Under US policing such attacks have been conducted and weapons have freely flowed to the Houthi’s in North Yemen.

What is the likely outcome in Yemen?

Obama’s top foreign policy aide John Brennan quietly travelled to Saudi Arabia for secret talks with Ali Abdul Saleh on the 10th July 2011 at a Saudi military hospital, where Saleh is recovering from an assassination attempt. Brennan’s talks surrounded convincing Saleh to agree to immediately step down and hand over control of the nation to his deputy, Major General Hadi. However all indications are that Saleh was no more open to the deal now than he has been for the past. Brennan then visited Yemen on the 13th July 2011 in order to meet Maj. Gen. Hadi to press him to accept a swift transition deal. Hadi has previously been unwilling to accept a deal to oust Saleh. Brennan said the Obama Administration was willing to increase aid to Yemen, which is in a state of virtual collapse after months of protests and assorted civil wars, but only after the GCC proposal for a transition is “signed and implemented.” It seems the US may not care if it is signed by Saleh or Hadi.

It is likely Britain will abandon Saleh as he will be unable to continue ruling due to what has been reported about his condition. There have already been some signs regarding this. Catherine Ashton the EU foreign policy chief said that that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was wounded during a rocket attack on his compound, “knows perfectly well what he needs to do for his people” despite his several pledges to resign broken in the past weeks

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the first to be removed in the Arab Spring, but ever since Tunisia has not made the global headlines, where does the revolution currently stand in the country?

Following Ben Ali’s departure, a state of emergency was declared and a caretaker government was created, which was largely filled by former members of Ben Ali’s party. As a result of continued daily protests, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi reshuffled the government, removing all former Ben Ali loyalists other than himself. Ben Ali’s party was also suspended and then dissolved. Following further public protests, Ghannouchi himself resigned in February, and Beji Caid el Sebsi became Prime Minister.

Elections were scheduled for July 2011, but these have been delayed to October due to apparent technical reasons. Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said: “All things considered, we decided to hold the elections on October 23. The most important thing is the transparency of the elections. There are parties who disagreed with this … but our mission is to hold elections that are free and transparent. We must protect the good name of the revolution.”

All this means Europe lead by Britain is not convinced that an election held now would give it the results it wants, therefore it has delayed them in order to cultivate the right environment to ensure those loyal to it can emerge from any election.

What is going on in Syria?

Like the wider Muslim world the Muslims of Syria took to the streets in order to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. DemonstrationS initially started in the border town of Deraa. Several people were killed when security forces opened fire on unarmed crowds. The unrest in Deraa quickly spiralled out of control, and then spread to other towns and cities. President Bashar al-Assad sent in tanks and troops to restore order, even blaming armed gangs and terrorists for the unrest. Towns such as Deraa, Homs and Douma were besieged for days. Hundreds were killed when snipers and tanks fired on unarmed protesters. Men were rounded up in night-time raids and electricity and communication lines were cut. Assad’s security services continue systematically torturing, raping and killing people whom they believe are opposed to the regime.

Whilst the international community has called for Assad’s removal, the US has only recently condemned Assad. Hillary Clinton has stopped calling him a reformer but it has not demanded that he leave.

Then Bashar al-Assad announced the ‘national dialogue’ in June which would be a comprehensive process that would deal with the different issues facing the Syrian people. The hope was that this would placate the opposition. All of this shows that Assad has no plans of stepping down any time soon.

What has the role of the US been?

Basher al-Assad will remain in power as long as the US does not abandon him as he has protected US interests in the region. Syria secured US interests in Iraq by infiltrating the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq, something the Baker Hamilton – Iraq study group (ISG) of 2006 noted. In Lebanon its support for Hizbullah has ensured Pro-European politicians have been frustrated with their plans and in Palestine it has worked to bring the PLO and Fatah together on the two state solution.

In the face of growing calls for Assad to step down the US has mostly called for reforms in Syria. US officials have even been meeting the opposition regarding this. A state department spokesman said: “We are encouraging genuine dialogue between the opposition and the regime but we are not promoting anything. We want to see a democratic Syria but this is in the hands of the Syrian people.” The state department was forced to defend Senator Robert Ford from the Republicans who was carrying out a fact finding mission in Syria. It has said he met a “broad cross-section of the opposition” and “occasionally…with members of the government” as appropriate and urged the opposition figures to hold talks with the Syrian regime.

The US has pushed the Syrian opposition to maintain dialogue with Bashar al-Assad’s regime and details have emerged of a “roadmap” for reforms that would leave Assad him in power despite demands for his overthrow. Syrian opposition sources have stated US state department officials have been encouraging discussion of the unpublished draft document, which is currently in circulation. The road map calls for Assad to oversee “a secure and peaceful transition to civil democracy”. It calls for tighter control over the security forces, the disbanding of “shabiha” gangs accused of atrocities, the legal right to peaceful demonstrations, extensive media freedoms, and the appointment of a transitional assembly, all the while Assad remains in power.

Hilary Clinton explained the American stance in an interview with Lucia Annunziata of Italy’s ‘In Mezz’Ora,’ “the difference between the situations in Syria and Libya is that the Syrian government might still come around and pursue a reform agenda,” Clinton was asked whether the US was applying a double standard when dealing with Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and other Arab dictators who are killing their citizens, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Clinton explained that she still held out hope that the Syrian government would institute reforms that could satisfy the demands of protesters and end the government-sponsored violence against civilians. There was no hope for that outcome in Libya, she said. “There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms,” she said. “What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we’re going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that.” Clinton argued that the United States and its international partners have acted aggressively in the case of Syria, but admitted that acting against the Assad regime is more complicated, in many ways, than organizing action against the Libya regime.

In effect the US is pushing for a domestic solution for Syria, something for Syrians to solve. In this way the US contains outside interference, allowing it to continue propping up its loyal agent as he kills his own people.