Yesterday, tens of thousands of anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters swept up to the gates of the presidential palace in Cairo, furious about a proposed Constitution that was written with limited, if any, input from the revolutionary political groups that spearheaded the protests that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Feb. 2011.
The protests prompted a hasty retreat through a back gate by President Mohamed Morsi, as angry protesters shouted the same slogans against him that swept him to power in June. Riot police had to hold back the protesters.
Today, came the inevitable show of street power from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders insist they're defending a democratically elected president from an undemocratic mob. Brothers were out in force in Cairo today, clashing with President Morsi's opponents and helping to secure the area around the palace, where Morsi returned to work today.
Crisis averted? No.
Egypt's sputtering transition from a military-backed, secular dictatorship to, well, something else, has now hit its rockiest point in the nearly two years since it began. Morsi's spokesman and backers have not offered any specific compromise. His Vice President Mahmoud Makki today addressed the nation, saying a referendum scheduled for Dec. 15 will move forward. Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing, summarized Mr. Makki's remarks as "No moving of Referendum date, no cancellation of Constitutional Declaration. Crowds do not dictate course of country, elected bodies do."
What next for protesters?
If the Brother's stick to their guns, the protesters have little in the way of political alternatives but more protests, or giving in. That too seems unlikely, with fundamental questions at stake about the future of Egyptian society and surging distrust of Morsi and his movement. Politics conducted through shows of street power is always dangerously messy, and the stage is being set for a politically and economically paralyzing period of political confrontation, with the risk of real violence.
"If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod [constitution] will bound Egypt's political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country's judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy's declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt's flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability," he writes. "Rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis."
The US has been largely passive in the face of these moves, wary that too much criticism of Morsi could jeopardize his commitment, so far, to maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, as was demonstrated by the role he played in securing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, when it appeared an Israeli invasion of Gaza was imminent.
"The upheaval we are seeing now once again in the streets of Cairo and other cities indicates that dialogue is urgently needed," Ms. Clinton told reporters in Brussels. Clinton asked for "respectful exchanges of views and concerns among Egyptians themselves about the constitutional process and the substance of the constitution."
Dialogue? Morsi gave himself sweeping powers by decree last month, and used them to rush through the draft constitution he now wants put to a national referendum ten days from now. The draft was hastily finished in an all night session of a committee almost devoid of Egypt's secular political forces, and has raised fears that fundamental rights to free speech will be compromised in the new Egypt, as they were in the old, and that Islamic law will play an ever-larger role in Egyptian governance.
A beggar's choice
What's more, if the referendum doesn't pass, Egyptians will be left with Morsi holding executive and legislative power and insisting the courts have little remit to review his decisions. That's a beggar's choice for his political opponents, and no recipe for national consensus on the rules of the game.
And events in Cairo today have been about as far from a "respectful exchanges of views" as could be imagined, with Muslim Brotherhood protesters tearing down the makeshift tents of protesters attempting a sit-in near the presidential palace and engaging in rock throwing volleys with less organized secular-leaning protesters.
Street confrontations at the end of Mubarak's rule were generally between government security protesters and police, with one of the notable exceptions coming on Feb. 2, 2011, when leaders of Mubarak's then-ruling National Democratic Party organized an attack on protesters at Tahrir Square. Armed thugs, a few bizarrely riding camels and horses, charged into Tahrir, touching off a globally-televised melee that ended with 11 people dead.
The ruins of that battle, which saw the sympathies of millions of Egyptians shift towards the young protesters, marked the end of whatever hope Mubarak had of clinging to power. The crowds in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities swelled to unmanageable numbers all unified by a singular demand: "Mubarak, go!" The Muslim Brotherhood, cautious as ever, finally joined the protests in force. The military, which governed Egypt from the time Mubarak stepped down until Morsi's election this June, began publicly lining up behind the "legitimacy" of popular demands.
On Feb. 11, Mubarak was gone.
Today, the secular revolutionaries are comparing the clashes to the "Camel Battle" on social media. Reports from the streets of Cairo have protesters expressing optimism that the general public will react, much as they did in early 2011. But what's happening now is a face-off between two groups of civilians with different ideologies, not the Egyptian people and military as "one hand" against the regime.
Reporters on the ground say the Brotherhood's numbers on the streets today are greater than their opponents, and President Morsi remains the only popularly elected political figure in the country. But while his support is intense, it isn't meaningful. In the run-off round of the presidential election, he defeated Mubarak loyalist and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq by 13.2 million votes to 12.3 million.
That a former air force chief of staff who went on to serve in Mubarak's cabinet for eight years came so close to victory was a clear sign that the Brother's did not have a mandate for the Islamicization of Egyptian politics the group has craved since it was founded in 1928.
What stood for a political consensus for post-Mubarak Egypt, with all sides promising greater freedoms and a national healing after Mubarak's almost 30 years of at times brutal rule, has now been fractured. Whether Morsi has the will, or interest, in trying to put it back together again is the key question that now confronts Egypt.
On Dec. 15, Egypt is scheduled to hold a referendum on a new constitution that had already sharply polarized the Arab world's largest nation. But after today's events, it's hard to not conclude that something is going to have to give between now and then.
President Mohamed Morsi is surely pondering his next move as he watches the tens of thousands of protesters swirling around the gates of the presidential palace (he is sleeping elsewhere in Cairo tonight). He may also be assessing his own dubious achievement of accomplishing in six months what took Hosni Mubarak 30 years of misrule: Bringing an angry crowd to the state palace in Heliopolis.
What brought them there this time?
Last week, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood approved a new Egyptian constitution over the objections of almost every secular-leaning political faction in the country. Shortly before that he'd seized extraordinary powers for himself with a presidential decree, a move that had his opponents saying it appeared Egypt had swapped one dictator for another.
He brushed off the complaints, insisted the move was necessary to pass a constitution without interference from Mubarak-era officials and institutions, and promised a speedy resolution. A document was indeed rushed through, filled with vagaries and contradictions. The draft, with its specific limits on free speech when it comes to "defaming" religion and expanded role for Islam in the country's laws, must have felt like a victory to him, like being close to a finish line.
Protests from secular groups? Well, they lost the election of the (since dissolved) parliament, they lost the presidential election, and his Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) exuded confidence that their discipline and organization would muster enough "yes" votes in the constitutional referendum. A dictator? Isn't democracy about the choice of the people, and then abiding by it? That was the line taken by his spokesmen.
But the fight over the constitution has energized a secular opposition that had seemed exhausted and badly divided just a few months ago. While poor organization and personality-driven political approaches have hamstrung the secular opposition since the fall of Mubarak, with the organized and popular Muslim Brotherhood marching from electoral victory to electoral victory, the appearance in recent days of Morsi as the leader of Egypt's Islamist bloc, rather than as the leader of all Egyptians, has clearly rattled large numbers of Egyptians.
Will Morsi's opponents be able to make that count for much going forward? After the past two years, the safe money remains on the Tahrir revolutionaries and secular political figures like Mohamed ElBaradei failing to create an organized political force. But the passion is there. Today, in protest of the draft constitution and Morsi's extended powers, about a dozen Egyptian newspapers refused to publish, and while the protest near the presidential palace was the largest, there were at least half a dozen other protests around the city.
And every day, things happen that make Morsi's "dictator" label hard to shake. Earlier today, an Egyptian prosecutor began an investigation into Mr. ElBaradei, failed secular-leaning presidential candidate Amr Moussa, the leaders of two secular political parties, and the head of the country's Judges Club, who had called for a judicial strike over the draft constitution, for "espionage."
Rigged lawsuits and trumped-up legal cases were a favorite tool in Mubarak's Egypt for punishing political opponents, and it appears the habit remains in the Morsi era.
It seems hard to believe Morsi will hold the course, at the least making token concessions to his opponents between now and Dec. 15, particularly if the Cairo crowds continue to swell. While the Brothers are hugely popular throughout Egypt and could probably deliver a referendum victory, an Egypt more politically divided and angry than ever is not the most auspicious start to a new era.
While the US and Israel have strongly opposed the move, and the UK has said it will abstain from the vote unless Mr. Abbas promises not to use his new status to bring war crime allegations against Israel in front of the International Criminal Court, there appear to be more than enough votes in the UN General Assembly for the motion which, in its current draft, expresses little more than support for the fundamental aspects of efforts towards a two state solution that have existed for decades now.
The draft resolution to be voted on at the UN says, among other things:
"Reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967;
Decides to accord to Palestine non-member observer State status in the United Nations, without prejudice to the acquired rights, privileges and role of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United Nations as the representative of the Palestinian people, in accordance with the relevant resolutions and practice;
Expresses the hope that the Security Council will consider favourably the application submitted on 23 September 2011 by the State of Palestine for admission to full membership in the United Nations;
(and) Affirms its determination to contribute to the achievement of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and the attainment of a peaceful
settlement in the Middle East that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and fulfills the vision of two States: an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel on the basis of the pre-1967 borders.
The US State Department has said the upgrade will be counterproductive, and some Israeli politicians have mooted cutting off the disbursement of tax receipts to the Palestinian Authority and even seeking to topple the PA in retaliation. The Israeli government has downplayed the issue in the past few days, with spokesman Mark Regev telling the New York Times that passage of "a one-sided anti-Israel resolution" by the General Assembly "should come as a surprise to nobody" and "ultimately, what we will see at the United Nations is diplomatic theater. It will in no way affect the realities on the ground.”
In the short term, at least, Mr. Regev is almost certainly correct. The moribund peace process is likely to remain so. Still, not everyone in Israel is in agreement. Bernard Avishai was in touch with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today, and in a piece for The Daily Beast's Open Zion channel, writes that Mr. Olmert thinks the move could eventually kick-start a healthier dialogue:
“I believe,” Olmert wrote me, intending his statement to be made public, “that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen"—an alias for Abbas—"and Salam Fayyad need our help. It's time to give it.”
Is Olmert just chasing the past? Isn’t the antagonism between Hamas and Israel’s “consensus” now the only relevant reality? Nonsense. What makes Abbas irrelevant is not Hamas “steadfastness,” but his failure to garner sufficient American backing for the principles he and Olmert worked through over 36 meetings in 2008: principles for resolving Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees consistent with the positions taken by previous American administrations, but which Netanyahu refuses to accept as a basis for new negotiations.
I wrote yesterday about Abbas's seeming irrelevance, and hopes that the UN bid could bring some political momentum back his way, which lately has seemed to all be in Hamas' direction.
But all this also brought back to mind the attacks against Obama in May 2011 for advocating the same thing (following in the footsteps of President George H.W. Bush, whose advocacy for a two-state solution on the basis of the pre-1967 armistice lines was dismissed by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1992 as the "borders of Auschwitz.") What did Obama say then?
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps." What does that mean? Well, in practice it means the Israelis and the Palestinians would negotiate bits of a future Palestinian state that would not follow the 1967 borders, with some Israeli settlement blocs presumably being swapped for other bits of Israeli land. 1967 is just a starting point.
That's been the general working idea for the last four US presidencies, including two Republican administrations. Yet not only was (Mitt) Romney striking out at Obama as having undermined Israel's "ability to negotiate peace" but others were reacting with outrage. Mike Huckabee complained of Obama's "betrayal" of Israel.
Huckabee also fell into a camp that apparently misunderstood what Obama said. He complained that Obama "made a grievous mistake by suggesting borders of Israel go back to pre-1967 borders." As did Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Republican presidential aspirant ("Obama's insistence on a return to the 1967 borders is a ... very dangerous demand.") As explained earlier, that's not what Obama said.
Well now the UN is cementing its long-standing position. Some Israelis like Mr. Olmert see the move as in their country's best interests. President Obama still holds his position, though he's standing in the way of the UN move as a favor to Mr. Netanyahu and Israel.Today, US officials lobbied Mr. Abbas to back off. No luck.
Something is about to happen. Will it change much? Who knows. But Palestine's status at the UN thus far doesn't seem to have been helping the so-called peace process.
What could it hurt?
At 10 a.m. in Cairo tomorrow (3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time), Egypt's battle between Islamists and a loose coalition of secular politicians and political activists over the country's new constitution looks set to come to a head.
The Muslim Brotherhood announced that the country's constituent assembly will hold an up or down vote then on a new draft constitution that has roiled Egyptian politics for months. If it passes a body that appears packed with Islamist politicians, most of those from the Brotherhood, the constitution will then be put to a national referendum. One caveat is that, in the coinage of political scientist Marc Lynch, Egyptian politics since Mubarak have resembled Calvinball, with rules and deadlines and statements shifting constantly.
Nevertheless President Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood politician who became the country's first freely elected president last June, appears committed to his current course. He's gambling the move will defuse an increasingly tense situation on the streets of Cairo. In the past week he's boldly (or recklessly, depending on your point of view) moved to break the constitutional impasse.
At the end of last week he issued a decree removing judicial oversight from the process, since he feared Egypt's judges would nullify the constituent assembly much as they'd nullified the election of parliament in June. That move had secular political forces warning that he was setting himself up as a dictator. The Brotherhood shot back that it was only a temporary move to ease passage of a constitution.
A sprawling constitution
But the constitution was the real issue all along. Secular Egyptians feared that Morsi and his Islamist allies were crafting a basic legal text that would move the country starkly in the direction of Islamic law, and argued that it was being drafted by a group that was far from representative of Egyptian society. From their point of view, they've been given two options: Live with Morsi holding all executive and legislative power, with broad immunity from judicial interference to boot; or, approve the constitution he favors.
Politicians on the assembly like Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief who unsuccessfully ran for president, complained in recent weeks they weren't being given anywhere near sufficient time to review an ever-changing, expanding document, that at last count had over 230 articles.
Drafts of the sprawling constitution have been filled with vague, at times contradictory language, while also calling Islamic law (sharia) "the" basis for Egyptian law rather than "a" basis, a crucial distinction. Further, they've envisioned a role for the unelected Islamic jurists of Al Azhar University in settling some constitutional matters.
What precisely will be voted on tomorrow? At this point, it's unclear. Egyptian newspapers are reporting more changes made in the past few days, including one report that a change has enshrined the military's controversial power to try civilians in military courts in some circumstances. In the absence of a clear public document with a chance for the public to review, rumors will fly and confusion will reign.
What will happen next?
The Brotherhood, responding to the over 100,000 anti-Morsi protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square yesterday, has been calling for a "million man march" on Saturday in support of the president and his constitutional moves and to "protect the achievements of the revolution." The anti-Morsi protesters, many of them the original organizers of the protests and marches that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011, have vowed to be on the streets Saturday too. It's an explosive situation, with many analysts and activists in Cairo warning that it could come to blows.
Where is the military in all this? Unclear. But if there is chaos on the streets, the chances of the military returning to the open role in Egyptian politics that it only recently vacated can't be ruled out.
And what of the referendum? Issandr El Amrani, a keen analyst of Egyptian politics, is worried, pointing out that Egypt's judiciary, which veered toward open revolt against Morsi in the past few days, is key to the organization of Egyptian elections.
"Even if it's approved tomorrow, there has to be a referendum on it. Victory is not guaranteed and a referendum will take at least a couple of weeks to organize. The supervisory commission to run it would be difficult to form, because it has to include senior judges who would likely boycott it, and judges are supposed to also be present at polling stations. All this points to a royal mess, a constitution that has no legitimacy among a big part of the public, and gives the opportunity to the Salafis — whose votes the Brothers now need to approve the latest draft — to introduce modifications to the text."
The Salafis are the Islamist faction that, when it comes to the role of women in society and the overall interpretation of the sharia, are to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For the moment, it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been the best organized popular political force in the country, has won this round.
But at what cost for Egypt and its stability?
Remember when there was a so-called "Egypt transition process?" An orderly series of democratic steps to set the country on a better path than the one it left behind? It went like this: A short period of military rule to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections, a drafting of a new constitution, and a referendum to ratify it.
Well, the notion of an orderly process has been in question for some time. Military rule lasted far longer than promised, the promised new parliament has still not arrived, and Egypt is in many ways, more tumultuous today than it was in the heady days of January and February 2011 when millions threw off their fears of the police state and pushed Hosni Mubarak out of power.
And events of the past few days seem to have settled it: Egypt's process is now an ad hoc, chaotic mess, and the prospects for a democratic order emerging from this still rolling transition have dimmed substantially.
To see that, all you had to do was look at the rowdy hundreds of thousands who took to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities yesterday, in some places sacking the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power earlier this year. (Gert Van Langendonck, who was in Tahrir yesterday, says the protest in that location was calm and orderly. Still, other parts of downtown witnessed violence, as did at least three other Egyptian cities.)
In Tahrir Square they were shouting the same slogans against Mr. Morsi, brought to power less than five months ago through a free election, that they shouted against Hosni Mubarak after his 30 years at the helm of a military dictatorship.
"The people demand the fall of the regime!" chanted the throng of Tahrir protesters, many of whom had cast their vote for Morsi in June to prevent the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, a close political ally of the ousted Mubarak.
A tad impatient? Perhaps.
But it's been almost 22 months since Mubarak was pushed out and all the transition has accomplished has been the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood president who voted himself near dictatorial powers last week. There was a parliamentary election (dominated by the Brotherhood but with plenty of secular factions obtaining seats as well) but the results were annulled by an Egyptian court in June.
Morsi and Islamist allies to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Nour Party's Salafis) look set to ram through a new constitution that will push Egypt hard in the direction of becoming an Islamic state. An ally of Morsi's on the constitutional drafting committee said the committee hopes to be done tomorrow with a final draft and put it to a popular referendum soon. That's not going to mollify the opposition whose principal complaint is that the new constitution will be an Islamist imposition on all the people of Egypt.
And from the outside looking in, there is clearly a thirst for political alternatives to the Brotherhood from secular-leaning Egyptians, but so far the opposition has been unable to unite into anything like an organized force against the country's ascendant Islamists.
As a practical matter, that has left average Egyptians with two choices for political participation: Backing Morsi, or going to Tahrir to raise their voices in protest.
A 'temporary' move?
President Morsi insists his powers are temporary, and his spokesmen have insisted he has had little choice but to work around judges who are holdovers from the Mubarak area that stood in the way of a new constitution. They say he won the presidency fair and square, and should be given time to lead Egypt in a new direction.
But human history has far more examples of extraordinary powers "briefly" assumed that stretched into various authoritarianisms than of those used to create democracies. And the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi are busy cutting deals with the institutions of Mubarak's state – his still politically powerful military and various ministries – to cement their power. Most of the so-called liberals who were in the constitutional assembly (the body that is supposed to draft a new constitution) walked off the job, claiming that Islamists were simply ignoring them.
Now, large swathes of Egyptian's judiciary are promising to go on strike in protest of Morsi's actions. The judges, like many appointed bureaucrats from the Mubarak era, have had far more input into politics lately than opposition politicians or the public, and so may get somewhere, though the battle lines are hardening.
The president was reacting to real problems when he immunized his decisions and the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. The Brotherhood had been heavy-handed in picking the Constituent Assembly, but it did so fully within the rules drafted last year. And it is not clear that the opposition would have been satisfied with any compromise over the composition of the body or its work. The Brotherhood’s complaint — that many critics were averse to allowing election results to have any impact on the document or its authors — is firmly grounded.
... Morsy’s defense of his moves as designed to support democracy unfortunately recall the remark attributed to an American soldier during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”... But while the crisis is not fully a product of the actors’ intentions, Egyptians will not find a path forward unless their leaders find within themselves an intention to resolve their differences through compromise. The constitutional process is badly broken, but it can still be repaired.
Morsi has insisted, for now, that he's not going to change course. And that potentially puts Egypt on an even more dangerous path. While the Brotherhood told its supporters to stay off the streets during yesterday's big anti-Morsi protests, in order to avoid clashes, the group has called for mass demonstrations in support of Morsi on Saturday, which could lead to clashes.
Rhetoric getting heated
The rhetoric of various officials around Morsi has also grown more heated. A spokesman for the Brother's Freedom and Justice Party wrote today that it's "Very sad to see 'genuine opposition' allied with 'corrupt Mubarak cronies.'" One of the Brotherhood's official Twitter account wrote yesterday that if the "opposition thinks the significance of today is # of Tahrir protestors... they should brace for millions in support of the elected" Morsi while dismissing the Tahrir protests as composed partly of "pro-Mubarak felols" (felol means "remnant" and is used derisively to denote Mubarak cronies and hangers on).
With the "process" gummed up, the opposition interested only, it seems, in using street power to prevent Morsi's agenda from moving forward, and Morsi currently the only official in Egypt with any democratic legitimacy, the stage looks set for a showdown. And what then? Sufficient rioting might bring the military back into the political forefront again.
Or even a long enough showdown with the judges. It was only in August that Morsi issued decrees asserting civilian authority over the military's in the political transition. His moves last week were precipitated by fears that the courts were about to roll all that back.
For now, more chaos and confusion seems certain. All else is cloudy.
The cameraman is traveling in a convoy of fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra, the main jihadi fighting group in eastern Libya and one that has attracted veterans of both the war against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya last year and of the wars against the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though the men are clearly delighted with their victory and seizure of a temporary government artillery base in Deir al-Zour Province, with shouts and smiles as a captured tank charges along the desert sand next to the road, there is very little of the random shooting in the air and other goofing off common among rebel militias. Though the scene looks chaotic, these fighters are disciplined as such groups go.
That's hardly surprising. Islamist militias have been the most committed and capable fighters of the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Syrian Euphrates river towns like Mayadin have strong tribal and general cultural ties to Iraqi Euphrates river towns to their southeast, like Haditha, Ramadi, and Fallujah. It was in those tough Sunni Arab towns, clinging to a narrow river valley in the middle of the desert, where Al Qaeda-inspired fighters found their most success during the US war in Iraq, and they were helped from their cousins to the north. Now the Iraqis, and other jihadis, are returning the favor.
Dave Enders was in Mayadin for McClatchy Newspapers when the Islamist fighters won the month-long battle for the base, which had been a feed plant until the start of the war. He describes a committed battle in which the supply chain for the Syrian Army defenders eventually broke down, forcing a retreat. He called it a "key victory that will allow (the rebels) to move next to the airport near the provincial capital (Deir al-Zour), one of the last positions the Syrian military controls in the province," and describes how reinforcements eventually arrived by road to evacuate the surviving government troops:
"The rebels withstood multiple air strikes, and on Wednesday (Nov. 21) they decided to make a final assault on the base. A helicopter that had been dropping weapons and food to the surrounded soldiers had failed to appear for three days, and rebels laid in wait for it with a pair of rockets they had captured from the Syrian military in an earlier battle. But instead of the helicopter, the reinforcements arrived via a nearby highway. The flags that were hoisted by the rebels at the base were not the one used by rebels groups that have pledged allegiance to the secular Free Syrian Army. Rather it was a black flag flown in particular by Islamist groups that are heavily involved in the fight against the government in this province. One building at the captured base flew the flag of Jabhat al Nusra, a group of fighters that have called openly for the establishment of a Syrian state based on Islamic law and that some fear has ties to al Qaida."
Three days without resupply for besieged troops? That's not a good sign for Assad.
Another potentially bad sign is the apparent use of a surface-to-air missile against a Syrian government helicopter recently. Tom Peter reported for us last week that by and large, rebels rely on generally ineffective "dushka" heavy machine guns to protect against the government's air assets. But now it appears that rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army have scored their first hit of a government helicopter with a surface-to-air missile (hat tip to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch), with video released online of the shot:
The uploader claimed the shot was made near Aleppo, and near Aleppo is where rebels reported securing a cache of surface-to-air missiles earlier this month. The missiles look like Russian-made Strela-2s, a type of heat-seeking missile that's been in service sine the 1970s.
As Israel veered close to a ground invasion of Gaza last week, with Israeli warplanes and artillery pounding Gaza, and Hamas directing rocket fire towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time ever, one name was on nobody's lips: Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr. Abbas may be president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of Fatah, the political party founded by Palestinian Liberation Organization icon Yasser Arafat. But during days of shuttle diplomacy involving Hamas, Israel, the US, Egypt, and other regional powers, Abbas was basically the lonely guy in the corner, hoping someone would eventually ask him to dance.
With the exception of a brief visit from Hillary Clinton, no one ever did. Now in the West Bank today, Abbas's Palestinian Authority is presiding over the exhumation of Mr. Arafat's body (his widow has been insisting of late that his 2004 death was the result of polonium poisoning) while Hamas negotiates with Israel via Egyptian intelligence officials over further easing of the economic blockade of Gaza.
In short, Abbas is rapidly becoming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's forgotten man. The moribund "peace process" that Abbas has championed for more than 20 years has not led to the creation of a Palestinian state, nor stopped the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have steadily chipped away at the size of a theoretical future state. Attacks inside Israel and against settlers have plummeted since the end of the second intifada seven years ago and he's recognized Israel's right to exist, yet restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank remain severe.
Cooperation versus confrontation
Abbas has been highly cooperative with the Israeli military and police in the West Bank. In the eyes of many Palestinians, he has secured Israeli interests at the expense of their own.
The West Bank is more prosperous than hemmed-in Gaza and able to trade with Israel. But Abbas' support, and that of his prime minister Salam Fayyad, has been steadily eroding while Hamas has once more taken up the mantle of the brave "resistance."
The Islamist Hamas, which took control of Gaza after drubbing Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections (largely due to an electorate fed up with Fatah corruption and abuses of power), now seems a more vital political force than its bitter rival. Senior Hamas leaders have been claiming vindication for their policy of confrontation with Israel over Fatah's commitment to negotiation.
In a swipe at Fatah, Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told the Associated Press last week that negotiations with Israel not backed by the threat of arms are doomed to fail. To be sure, what concessions, if any, Israel will actually deliver as part of the ceasefire are uncertain.
Gulf Arab states have been shifting their attentions from Fatah to Hamas in recent years. In October, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, became the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007 and promised $400 million in aid.
Hamas has largely been backed by Iran in the past decade. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US by Al Qaeda, the US put pressure on Saudi Arabia and other close friends among the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf to cut support from what the US deems a terrorist organization and they mostly complied. Shiite and ethnically Persian Iran, in the middle of its own cold war for influence with the likes of Saudi Arabia, happily stepped into the breach, providing the longer range missiles that today threaten Tel Aviv. Iran's ally Syria, too, became a major backer of the group.
Hamas reaching out to Sunni Arabs
But now Hamas is reaching out once more to the Sunni Arabs with whom it has more natural ties. The Sunni-led uprising against the Assad dictatorship Syria has strained the alliance with Iran. Hamas' exiled leaders who had made Damascus their base for years decamped earlier this year and sided with the uprising, even as Iran continued to staunchly back Assad.
"Iran's position in the Arab world, it's no longer a good position," because of its support for Assad in Syria, Abu Marzouk told reporters yesterday. "Iran asked Hamas to adopt a closer position to Syria. Hamas refused, and this has affected our relationship with Iran."
He might as well have said to the Saudis: "We're waiting by the phone." Will Saudi Arabia grasp an opportunity to permanently wean Hamas off Iran? They may, and if so Abbas will find himself with one fewer friend.
What can he do to swing some political momentum back in his direction? The odds of even a partial Israeli settlement freeze any time soon are zero, with that country's elections coming up and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeing no percentage in making concessions to the PA anyways. So that leaves unilateral action – precisely the course Abbas is now pursuing.
Bid at United Nations
He's vowed to seek a vote at the UN General Assembly on Thursday on granting Palestine "observer state" status at the UN, an upgrade from its current "observer entity" status. While this sounds like semantics, the upgrade would give Palestine more standing in front of UN bodies – for instance the ability to make complaints to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The move has infuriated the US and Israel and they've been lobbying furiously to have Abbas pull back, even though it's one of the few steps he can take to bolster his own secular, more Israel-friendly movement Fatah over Hamas.
Israel has been threatening to cut off the flow of tax receipts to Abbas' and Fayyad's government in response. And the US isn't mincing words.
"We’ve obviously been very clear that we do not think that this step is going to bring the Palestinian people any closer to a state, that we think it is a mistake, that we oppose it, that we will oppose it," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. "Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] was very clear with President Abbas when she was in Ramallah last week that our position on this has not changed, and we are continuing to make that clear, not only directly to President Abbas and the Palestinians, but also to all of our UN partners as well."
Ms. Nuland went on to say: "We think it’s going to be complicating and potentially a step backwards in terms of the larger goal, which is a negotiated solution."
If Abbas does back down, it will once again appear as if he's acting entirely at the behest of the US. Not something to improve his standing in the current climate.
After UN vote, then what?
Could the UN deliver the big win Abbas desperately needs? Perhaps. France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told his country's parliament today Paris will vote "yes" for Palestine at the UN, and recognition of a state along 1967 borders at the UN would be a symbolic victory. Raucous, happy crowds in Ramallah after a successful vote? No doubt.
But what then? The Obama administration has threatened to cut Abbas off financially in retaliation for pursuing observer status at the UN. Congress is on board too. When Abbas flirted with a UN bid last year, Congress suspended $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel too, has threatened financial sanctions, and some senior officials have gone further. Right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman prepared a document calling for the "dismantling" of the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for a successful UN upgrade.
Cutting off money would be devastating in an economy where most employment is driven by the PA. That could leave Abbas with a symbolic victory, but real financial and political pain and more people viewing the Hamas approach to Israel as the right one.
That outcome would presumably horrify the US and Israel, but sometimes it appears that the efforts of years have guided outcomes in precisely the direction they had hoped to avoid. When Hamas first started to emerge in Israeli-occupied Gaza in the 1980s, Israel viewed the religious movement as a useful foil to Fatah, a group that could divide Palestinian loyalties and weaken their major enemy.
Twenty years later, Hamas is the major enemy. Fatah, and Abbas, are staring at obsolescence.
Erik Prince, the man who founded Blackwater, the private military contractor that became synonymous with mercenary excess during the Iraq war, has apparently begun a bold new business venture: He's going to be investing with a group of unnamed Chinese government-linked companies in resource extraction and infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa.
At least that's according to the South China Morning Post, which published an exclusive interview with Mr. Prince yesterday. The paper says Mr. Prince has founded an investment company called Frontier Resource Group earlier this year as an "Africa-dedicated investment firm partnered with major Chinese enterprises, including at least one state-owned resource giant that is keen to pour money into the resource-rich continent."
Prince made a fortune during the early and extremely fat years for contractors of the global war on terror, thanks to political connections and an appetite for risk. Roughly $2 billion of US contracts in Iraq flowed through the company. But the name "Blackwater" eventually grew tarnished under the weight of alleged corruption and murder in the field. It was Blackwater employees who were who were ambushed and killed in Fallujah in 2004, sparking the US assault on that Iraqi town that helped further polarize the war. In 2007, panicking Blackwater guards unleashed a barrage of fire in Nisour Square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians.
The massacre cemented Iraqi fury at private military contractors and set the stage for the Iraqi governments refusal to allow US forces to remain in Iraq with immunity from local prosecution, something that forced the US departure at the end of last year. By the time Prince sold out of Blackwater in 2010, which he'd renamed "Xe" in an attempt to dissociate his venture from its unsavory public image, US government contracts were drying up. In April 2010, five senior Blackwater executives (not Prince though) were indicted on weapons violations and making false statements to law enforcement.
But Prince has since found other governments to do business with. He had moved to the United Arab Emirates, a low-tax monarchy on the Persian Gulf, were he grew close to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. While there, he worked on the creation of the Puntland Maritime Police Force, a private militia designed to conduct anti-piracy operations in Somalia.
In July of this year, the UN Security Council called the Force "the most brazen violation of the [Somalia] arms embargo by a private security company." The UN said the force had over 1,000 men under arms and wrote: "This private army disingenuously labelled a “counter-piracy” force, has been financed by zakat contributions mainly from high-ranking officials from the United Arab Emirates, including the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Government of the United Arab Emirates, however, has officially denied any involvement in the project." (Zakat is charitable tithing in Islam).
The anti-piracy militia was ultimately abandoned by its funders, leaving a new, well-armed, and semi-organized group in the mix of competing militias in the Horn of Africa.
But Prince still sees his future on the continent. The Frontier Resources Group remains headquartered in Abu Dhabi, but he told the SCMP that "Africa is so far the most unexplored part of the world, and I think China has seen a lot of promise in Africa." He told the paper that his Africa fund has raised $100 million in private equity so far and argued that investors will be wise to place their bets on his new venture.
"We are the search radar for [Asian investors] in Africa because we have the expertise and we know how to measure and control the risks," Prince said.
It will be interesting to follow the upcoming chapters of Prince's business life, which already read like something out of a John Le Carre novel.
Unlike hundreds of political and celebrity twitter feeds that maintain only the thinnest pretenses of being written by their supposed owner (either that or Senator Lindsey Graham is one of the greatest multitaskers of all time), you're really getting Mr. Murdoch, unfiltered.
Unlike say, with Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, whose Twitter account last night deleted a tweet in which the ambassador had said Israel was willing to sit down with Hamas if rocket fire stopped from Gaza, explaining: "The earlier tweet about my CNN interview was sent erroneously by a staffer."
No, Murdoch is Murdoch, which is what makes two tweets of his from last night so interesting. The first: "Can't Obama stop his friends in Egypt shelling Israel?" And the second: "Why Is Jewish owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?"
I'm not sure what great friends Obama has in Egypt. It's true that the US didn't stand in the way of the Egyptian uprising that saw longstanding dictator Hosni Mubarak driven from power in 2011. And the Obama administration has been seeking to craft a workable relationship with the new civilian government of President Mohamed Morsi, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, since.
But A. US influence is limited in Egypt, given the hostility of a large swath of President Morsi's constituency to the US and its strong military support for Israel; And, B. (And this is the important bit.) Egypt is not firing anything at Israel.
Israel is taking missile and mortar fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, of course. But that's much as has been happening since 2001, with all but one of those years occurring when Mr. Mubarak was in power in Egypt. Though Egypt then, as now, has some influence over events in Gaza (it hosted failed talks on a failed cease-fire attempt overnight) Hamas very much marches to its own drummer. Hopefully someone at Fox News will fill Murdoch in.
The second quote from Murdoch up above is equal parts troubling and illuminating. He seems to believe that the owners of media outlets should require their reporting to conform to their owners political preferences and world-views, rather than reflect observed reality. It's fair to assume that's what happens at his sprawling press holdings, particularly his US-based flag-ship Fox News.
That's the illuminating part. The troubling part is his apparent belief that Jewishness should be synonymous with support for the current Israeli government, even for Jewish-Americans. It's long been an anti-Semitic trope in US and European life that Jews are not truly loyal to the countries of their birth and citizenship, that for them Israel comes first. Such false claims are rightly pushed back on. Then there's the frequently made anti-Semitic claim that the "Jews control the media," usually made within various conspiracy theories.
Imagine if Murdoch's sentence was turned around, but used the same logic: What if he had asked: "Why is Jewish owned press so consistently pro-Israel in every crisis?" That statement would rightly be decried as anti-Semitic.
Murdoch apologized, sort of, today: " 'Jewish owned press' have been sternly criticised, suggesting link to Jewish reporters. Don't see this, but apologise unreservedly."
There is of course a lively debate among Jewish Americans, and Jews in Israel, about the rightness and wrongness of Israeli government behavior. In the pages of the Jerusalem Post you will find an editorial-line closer to Mr. Murdoch's heart, and in the pages of Haaretz a general approach that he would disapprove of.
But no matter. Murdoch forthrightly speaks his mind and that's refreshing and unusual. It's a useful data-point to consider when consuming news produced by his employees.
The blossoming Gaza war is even more than most wars about image and propaganda. Israel wants to set an image of implacable resolve to confront and destroy Hamas "terror." Hamas wants to set an image of implacable resolve to confront Israeli "terror" and "occupation." Both are trying to sway the political discourse inside the other's territory with this image-making.
Both their acts of violence and their propaganda, mostly online, are the tools with which they try to do that.
Every day since Wednesday, the ante has been upped. Israel assassinates Al Qassam Brigade (Hamas's military wing) chief Ahmed Jabari to send a message that rocket fire from Gaza must stop. The response? A barrage of missile fire from Gaza in the past four days, 737 rockets and mortars in all, more than the 723 fired over the course of the first 10 months of the year. The message from Hamas: You attack us, we respond even harder.
Israel intensifies its air campaign over Gaza. Hamas's response? Launching long-range rockets from its arsenal that it had withheld from use until now, firing at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city and commercial hub, was threatened with aerial assault for the first time since 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched scud missiles toward the town. For Jerusalem, it was a stunning development: the first air raid sirens to sound there in history. The message from Hamas: We are developing a deterrent that we're willing to use on population centers.
The Israeli response to that? Calling up reservists and laying the ground work for an invasion of Gaza. While the decision has not been taken to go in, the posturing in that direction has put the situation on a knife's edge, since a ground assault would likely be a bloodier replay of the three-week Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008 that ended with 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, and massive destruction to Gaza's infrastructure.
Israel insists its targeting is precise and focused on militants. Hamas makes no such claim, and, in fact, can't; the rockets fired from Gaza are the very definition of indiscriminate, hugely imprecise and more likely to kill civilians than anyone else. Hamas counters that far more of its civilians die at Israeli hands than vice versa, and its rockets the only tools at their disposal.
Israel has taken a hyper-aggressive approach to the war itself and its online image. With the decision to target civilian facilities of the Hamas government in Gaza today (the four-story office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City was leveled, for instance), it appears to be sending the message to all Hamas officials that they're vulnerable to assassination. Fear, in many Israeli leaders' thinking, is the best weapon to force Hamas to give up its sporadic armed campaign against the Jewish state.
That may prove wise, or deeply unwise. Hamas in its own propaganda insists that it won't be deterred from resistance by the blood of "martyrs." And the historically disproportionate death toll when Gaza fights Israel (which has been maintained so far this time, with 3 Israelis killed against 40 Palestinians since Wednesday) tends to feed hatred against the Jewish state and a desire for revenge inside Gaza. That is, more willing recruits to fight.
But at least one can grasp the Israeli point of view, the frustration that leads to hope that intense bombing will create peace. Harder to understand is the Israeli online media strategy, which seems designed to preach exclusively to the choir with hyper-macho bluster.
The country has been rolling out gun-camera video of many of its aerial attacks inside Gaza, apparently to make the case that it uses precision targeting. The first such video issued was of the Wednesday assassination of Hamas commander Mr. Jabari as his car drove through one of Gaza City's narrow streets, the single event that led to the current state of war.
But will this help it to convince international folks without strong allegiances, or who may lean a little in a pro-Palestinian direction, to see things Israel's way? After the killing of Jabari, the IDF released a poster of him with the word "Eliminated" in big, white letters. When sharing a video of an attack on a Hamas commander's home in Gaza today that appeared to be hosting a weapons cache, judging by secondary explosions, an IDF spokesman included the twitter hashtag #stoptherockets. (There are other air strikes on Gaza in which no secondary explosions are apparent).
He obviously mean the rocket fire from Gaza, which has surged since Wednesday. But Israel's fire into Gaza has been far more lethal than vice versa. In another tweet on Thursday, the official IDF spokesperson's account shared a video of a rocket being fired from a residential area inside Gaza with the comment, "Would you raise your child in such a neighborhood?"
I'm quite certain that most Gaza parents are not at all happy about that, but it's not as if they have much choice. The majority of Gaza's 1.5 million residents today are Palestinian refugees who were pushed into the strip upon Israel's creation in 1948 and their descendants. Gaza is not allowed to have an airport or a seaport, and only a trickle of people are allowed to leave through either Egyptian or Israeli territory each year. Moving is quite simply not an option.
More interesting still was the threat issued on Wednesday: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead." Hamas members are well aware they're targets. The point of the twitter conversation is to speak to a broader audience.
After the three week Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, Israel's international reputation took a hit because of the large number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Its sprawling media operation created since in part reflects frustration that the country is being unfairly maligned, and a belief that better military communication can fix that. Writing for Foreign Policy, Michael Koplow thinks they're going about it the wrong way:
"But the IDF's barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations' Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one.
... The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base... Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation."
Hamas's propaganda is, if anything, even more aggressive and ham-handed, hence Goldberg's comment. The @alqassambrigade Twitter account is generally accepted as an English language outlet for Hamas's military wing (though there is some room for doubt) and has not only issued its share of chest-thumping and threats, but frequently inaccurate information. On Friday, the account falsely claimed that an Israeli jet had been shot down over Gaza.
More usually are simply absurd claims like this one from yesterday, saying the war is "going well in achieving historic goals, Liberation of occupied Palestine started ... we are coming IDF." Hamas does not have the ability to take any of the fight to the IDF, let alone defeat Israel.
In a nutshell, the propaganda campaigns are talking past each other, flying over the heads of anyone who could be reached by either side's message, and firing up their own already fired-up base.
That's a recipe for more war, not less.