The murder of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens yesterday as an unopposed crowd ransacked and torched the consulate in Benghazi, along with a raucous protest at the US embassy in Cairo, are events that are going to reverberate for months to come. That the violence came on the anniversary of the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington was not a coincidence.
Mr. Stevens was killed along with three other Americans in Libya's second-largest city, in protests that used as their pretext a hitherto unknown amateur film designed to insult the prophet Muhammad. Stevens was the first US ambassador murdered in the line of duty since Ambassador Adolph Dubs was assassinated in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979. Early unconfirmed reports from Benghazi indicated the other dead Americans were Marines assigned to diplomatic security.
The ginned-up controversy over the film, which was propelled to violence by a rabble-rousing Egyptian television channel that presented the film as the work of the US government, recalls the protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005.
Then, there were violent protests across the Middle East over the exercise of free speech in a Western nation. In some ways, it was the beginning of an era of manufactured outrage, with a group of fringe hate-mongers in the West developing a symbiotic relationship with radical clerics across the East. The Westerners deliberately cause offense by describing Islam as a fundamentally violent religion, and all too often mobs in Muslim-majority states oblige by engaging in violence.
Terry Jones, a fringe evangelical Florida preacher, has been one of the instigators on the US end. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he basked in the publicity of a planned Quran-burning and the threats and violence that ensued. Mr. Jones is involved in the latest manufactured controversy as well, since in the past week he's drawn attention to the deliberately insulting film, financed by a self-described Jewish-Israeli real estate developer Sam Bacile living in California.
Jones and Mr. Bacile cannot be blamed for the violence and death of the ambassador. That blame goes to the perpetrators. Who whipped them up? Ground zero for bringing attention to the movie in Egypt appears to be Al-Nas TV, a religious channel owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Mansour bin Kadsa. A TV show presented by anti-Christian, anti-Semitic host Khaled Abdullah before the violence showed what he said were clips from the film, which he insisted was being produced by the United States and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians.
The clip, dubbed from the US film into Arabic, was certainly inflammatory. It shows Muhammad as a grinning fool, talking to a donkey and dubbing it "the first Muslim animal." Max Fisher found a 14-minute video of the movie in English that is even worse, one badly acted anti-Islamic caricature after another, with all Muslims portrayed as cartoonishly violent and depraved child rapists, and a running "joke" that constantly calls Muhammad "the bastard of the unknown father." The frankly disgusting clip is included below.
But the filmmakers are among the least responsible for the chain reaction that followed. More responsible is Al-Nas, which turned it into an anti-Christian propaganda exercise of its own. Then there are national leaders. The US embassy in Cairo is nestled in the usually heavily-guarded Cairo neighborhood of Garden City, with security checkpoints in a half-mile perimeter before you can reach the embassy walls. Yet a group of protesters were not only allowed in, but allowed to scale the wall of the US embassy, stealing the US flag flying there and ripping it to shreds after replacing it with an Islamic flag. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, now Egypt's president, has so far been silent on the total security failure at the embassy.
Events in Benghazi may be more forgivable from a security standpoint, given the turmoil of post-Qaddafi Libya and the general incompetence of the country's emerging security institutions. But video of the assault on the consulate there shows no signs of any security effort at all, and the results were pure tragedy.
That the US ambassador was murdered on a visit to Benghazi is part of a sad irony that will probably be played up in the US presidential race in the days ahead. The city was the center of the uprising against Qaddafi, and was saved from being overrun by Qaddafi's forces in March 2011 by US, French, UK, and other Western countries that pounded his armored column from the air. I was in Benghazi on the night the UN Security Council authorized force against Qaddafi, and witnessed the first cheering crowds I'd ever seen in the Middle East waving American flags.
But many Libyans are not just devout in their faith, but jingoistic in their approach, and eastern Libya has seen its share of religious violence. In February 2006, a mob attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi after an Italian far-right politician wore a t-shirt with one of the Muhammad cartoons and burned it to the ground. Events in Benghazi are a reminder that gratitude in international politics is a short-lived phenomenon that decisions should never be based on.
Libyan deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif told a press conference in Tripoli that Qaddafi loyalists were responsible for the attack, which involved a well-armed militia, though he admitted to government security failings. Is he right? There are plenty of armed Islamist groups in the area who fought against Qaddafi who could have carried out the attack, and the 2006 attack on the Italian consulate developed into a general anti-Qaddafi protest, with many of the figures involved in the uprising against Qaddafi in 2011 present at the 2006 attack.
So far, there is no broader violence. But that could change.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, a man whose power is entirely owed to the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO allies to install him and by the blood of the thousands of US, UK ,and other foreign nationals who have defended his government, wanted to make sure that Afghans were aware of the movie. His government issued a statement calling the film "inhuman and abusive." Could there be attacks on US troops or foreign staff over this in Afghanistan? That's sadly possible.
On April 2011, roughly 20 United Nations staffers were killed in the northern Afghan city of Mazir-e-Sharif after a compound was overrun by Afghans angry at Jones's first publicized Quran burning. In February and March of this year, six US soldiers were killed by Afghan soldiers and police in the aftermath of US soldiers dumping Qurans into a burn pit at Baghram airbase.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was sentenced to death today over what he asserts are politically-motivated terrorism charges, in the latest move by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that is certain to stoke sectarian tensions in the troubled Arab nation.
His son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan was likewise sentenced to death by hanging. Mr. Hashemi, the country's most senior Sunni Arab official, was targeted for prosecution within a week of the US military's departure from Iraq last December. Since, he's been on the lam, telling anyone who will listen that Maliki, a Shiite community leader, is amassing dictatorial powers for himself and creating the conditions for a renewed sectarian civil war in the country. In an interview weeks before today's verdict, the one-time staunch critic of the US occupation said he was looking to the US for assistance, and that unbridled sectarianism was threatening the country's tenuous stability.
"I am very much concerned about the future, I can say that my country has reached a turning point, because of the sectarian and unqualified management of Maliki and the trouble-making of Iran," Hashemi told me. "Now all possibilities are coming on the table because of the injustice, the wide-scale corruption. People are getting fed up... people will be forced to think of other drastic solutions to get rid of this ongoing injustice… I’m very scared. And feel very, very much worried about the future."
The growing alienation of Sunnis from the political process has been the main driver of this year's rising death toll, as today's more than 80 killings, many of which occurred before the announcement, remind. The conviction of Hashemi will confirm the second class status of Sunnis in many minds, and likely lead to more attacks.
The promised "reconciliation" that was supposed to follow the US troop surge under General David Petraeus in the closing years of the Iraq war never came. Instead, Iraq's Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish political leaders have remained in their tribal camps.
Iraqi politics has settled down into a long, sectarian cold war, occasionally punctuated by blood. How much blood? Iraq lost 3,063 lives to terrorism in 2011, only behind Afghanistan in fatalities.
July was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2010, with 325 people killed. Though that number dropped to 164 in August, today's bloodshed occurred in at least 7 cities, a sign of the widening arc of violence. The bloodiest attack was in the heavily Shiite southern city of Amara, where car bombs outside a Shiite shrine killed at least 16 people.
Within a week of of the US military departure last December, Hashemi was accused by the government of running a death squad that targeted Shiite officials. A lurid trial has been ongoing in his absence, with former bodyguards and aides confessing to rape, torture, and murder of senior security officials on the orders of Hashemi.
The politically charged prosecution began when Maliki's government paraded a number of Hashemi's guards on national TV, who confessed to a series of murders. Is it true? Hashemi angrily denies all charges, saying they are politically motivated and that the confessions were extracted under torture.
Torture and the threat of torture are routinely used to extract confessions from the guilty and innocent alike in Iraq, and the word "independent" before "judiciary" in Iraq is the thinnest veil of fiction. But almost none of the past decade's players in Iraqi politics are free from stain. Most senior politicians have dealt with members of sectarian death squads down the years, and more than a few have operated them directly. Visits to politicians in Iraq during the height of the war, whether they were Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd, required passing through their heavily armed bodyguards – men with wolfish grins accountable to no one but the man who paid their wages.
Hashemi has allegations of his own. "I think our situation in terms of human rights, is getting much worse than it used to be during Saddam Hussein’s regime," says Hashemi. "The Maliki government took innocent people and after 24 to 48 hours bodies were delivered to their families. 'These were not the man we were looking for and we’re sorry about your son,' is all they said."
So Iraqi politics are a particularly dirty business, and with justice pursued unevenly, with opponents of Maliki far more likely to face prosecution than allies, the dangers of the country's current course are obvious. Many Sunnis well remember the hanging of Mr. Hussein in 2006, which was videotaped and released on the Internet. The dictator was taunted while being led to the gallows and having the rope fitted around his neck, with shouted Shiite prayers and the name of Shiite militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr filling his ears in his final moments.
Execution by hanging has surged in Iraq this year, with 96 such executions through Sept. 6, compared to 68 in 2011. Many of the condemned were sentenced under "treason" and "terrorism" statutes.
As Hashemi and his allies tell it, Iraq’s unhealed sectarian wounds are being reopened. Hashemi has been left in the strange-bedfellow's position of urging greater US involvement in Iraq's affairs after having been for years a loud and frequent critic of the US military occupation of the country. Maliki, for his part, has been moving ever closer to Iran, even as his government negotiates a $12 billion arms purchase, including 36 F-16s, with the US.
"The American people should understand that the mission was not fulfilled, regardless of the high cost that was paid by American lives... therefore according to the framework agreement, the US should continue its mission in Iraq until there’s a real state, real institutions, and a real democracy," Hashemi said.
"Maliki is now monopolizing the ministry of the interior, of defense, of national security, of intelligence. He’s using nationalistic rhetoric but at the same time behaving in a very sectarian manner. If we are talking about democracy then how come all that happens in Iraq is considered a democracy? All under the control of one man and one party," he added.
Hashemi has headed the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Muslim Brotherhood-style political group, since shortly after the US invasion in 2003. A critic of the US occupation and the emerging Shiite-dominated political order, he was nevertheless willing to work within the political system.
During the US troop surge he was a main player in encouraging Sunni Arab tribesmen to join the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement that saw Sunni Arab militias abandon the insurgency and take on the government's cause.
He was clearly a figure of respect for Sunni militants. When this paper's former correspondent Jill Carroll was freed after three months as a hostage of Sunni jihadists (who had murdered the Monitor's translator Allan Enwiyah), she was dropped off at Hashemi's Baghdad offices. Now a reliable interlocutor with militants on behalf of the government is frozen out of the political process completely.
Hashemi says "more than 100 of my guards have been arrested without explanation. Even civilians and staff in my office have been arrested. My office has been confiscated, my house has been confiscated. What kind of power does a prime minister have to do all this to a vice president?"
The worst of Iraq's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting may now be behind it, but the horrors of tens of thousands tortured and murdered and untold more maimed physically and psychologically are a burden that Iraqis will be working through for generations. The winner-take-all triumphalism of Maliki has served to stoke those sectarian flames anew.
That is the bitter backdrop to Iraq's deteriorating politics. Factionalism is the name of the game, as Hashemi's legal problems make all too clear. With Al Qaeda-style jihadis resurgent, both thanks to local conditions and the civil war in neighboring Syria, there is little hope of a lasting peace breaking out in Iraq soon.
Peace at any price is probably not Maliki's principal concern. The Shiite Islamist parties that backed him for the premiership are well-entrenched. While they have internal divisions, none of them are interested in doling out power to Sunni groups they generally associate with Saddam Hussein's hated regime.
Maliki is concerned with securing his domestic political position and staying friendly with his powerful neighbor Iran. He has longer standing debts. When Maliki fled a death sentence imposed by Saddam Hussein for his Islamist political activism in the late 1970s, Maliki was sheltered in Tehran and Damascus before finally returning home in 2003.
And though the violence is bad for the economy and for its victims, it is unlikely to threaten to dislodge Iraq's new powers from their perches. The new Iraqi army, armed and trained by the US and other foreign powers, is powerful enough to protect the country's new rulers, its officers answerable directly to the prime minister.
But now with domestic politics deteriorating and the civil war in Syria, where Maliki is seen as backing Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a predominantly Sunni Arab uprising, the likelihood of a surge in Iraq violence is growing.
Anger and disillusion
The US troop surge that began in 2007 owed its short term success to the US outreach to Sunni militants (and the fact that the chauvinistic Al Qaeda-style hard core had alienated many of their allies). That was a time when Sunni Arabs had hope that while Iraq might never be as good for them as it was under Hussein, it could still be livable. The US paid Sunni militants to join the government cause in organized militias variously called the Awakening or Sons of Iraq, and arm-twisted Maliki and other Shiite politicians into promising those men would be integrated into the security services. Pretty quickly, the Islamic State of Iraq was on the run.
But Maliki has delivered on few of his promises to those Sunni militias. Many of their leaders have been arrested by his security services, many of their rank and file killed by both Shiite death squads and resurgent Sunni jihadis who branded them traitors.
Iraqiyya, a political party mostly supported by Sunni Arabs, won the most seats in the country's 2010 parliamentary election, but was outmaneuvered by Maliki when it came time to form a government. "De-Baathification," the process of disqualifying predominantly Sunni officials from office who belonged to Hussein's Baath party that began when Paul Bremer ran the Coalition Provisional Authority, has continued apace.
Hashemi has been complaining about this for years. In 2009, he and other members of his party repeatedly warned US officials that the Sunni tribes who had joined the Awakening were disenchanted, particularly after the government rounded up some of their leaders. By 2010, Hashemi had completed his evolution from viewing the US agenda in the country with outright hostility to seeing America as the only hope for his community to ward off complete Shiite hegemony.
A promise to share power, particularly a distribution of senior defense positions to Sunnis and Kurds, was the price of forming a government after eight months of negotiations. The US leaned hard on Maliki to reach the power-sharing deal. But Maliki has remained the de facto minister of defense and interior.
A US role?
The US has become a spectator to Iraq's sectarian politics, despite the estimated $4 trillion that the US will ultimately pay for the war in Iraq. Corruption is rampant. In 2011 Iraq was ranked 175th out of 182 in Transparency International's annual poll of corrupt countries. The electricity supply is intermittent, despite the country being one of largest oil producers in the world. Freedom of the press has steadily eroded.
Hashemi, looking for allies, wants the US to do something but he's not sure what. Asked if he'd like to see Washington use its planned arms sales to Iraq as leverage, he hedges. He suggests that's a step the US might try, but declines to say that's what he'd like to see happen.
"The weaponry, the F-16, Iraq is in need of that, and even the heavy artillery is needed. I understand that," he says. "But we are facing difficulties, inside the federal government in Baghdad, or between the federal government and the [Kurdish Regional Government], so how come the US is sending more armaments to an unstable situation in Iraq? To the best of my knowledge I’m looking to the US and not any other country, so don’t ask me what sort of pressurized instrument we have to generate to rectify this situation. The US is still the most powerful country in the world, and they know what to do, all we are obliged to do is to tell the truth."
The Afghan war made a rare appearance in the presidential campaign discourse yesterday, with both President Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney forced by reporters to address a war they've been mostly ignoring on the trail.
The conflict has been grinding on in the background, costing about $5 billion a month and the lives of soldiers, with 418 US soldiers dying in Afghanistan last year, and 236 so far this year. The brief blip in interest now in Afghanistan comes thanks to a surge in so-called "green on blue" killings – Afghan soldiers and cops, armed and trained at the expense of the US taxpayer, murdering the NATO troops working with them.
Romney's and Obama's responses make clear why neither seem to want to talk about America's longest war: There is little difference between their positions on Afghanistan.
Obama and US generals will continue to speak of steady progress as they prepare to depart Afghanistan in 2014. If Mr. Romney wins the presidency, he is unlikely to extend an unpopular, but generally forgotten war. When campaigning, he's said he'd stick to the current withdrawal timeline.
Obama went first, after he made a rare appearance at a White House press briefing. He was asked what senior US officers are telling him about the propensity of Afghan troops to kill US troops.
"On Afghanistan, obviously we’ve been watching with deep concern these so-called green-on-blue attacks, where you have Afghan individuals, some of whom are actually enrolled in the Afghan military, some – in some cases dressing up as Afghan military or police, attacking coalition forces, including our own troops," Obama said. "I just spoke today to Marty Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who happens to be in Afghanistan. He is having intensive consultations not only with our commander, John Allen, on the ground, but also with Afghan counterparts. And I’ll be reaching out to President Karzai as well — because we’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of this."
Dempsey certainly has his work cut out for him. Shortly after Obama spoke, Dempsey's plane was hit by Taliban rocket fire on the tarmac at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul. That's the part of Afghanistan where the US presence is strongest, and where support for the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 was rock solid. President Karzai? He has little practical influence over what happens in the ranks of Afghanistan's rapidly expanding but ethnically divided Army.
More than 10 years into the war, Afghan soldiers murdering NATO soldiers is a new phenomenon. Data compiled by the New America Foundation show no killings of NATO soldiers by coalition Afghan security forces until 2007, when two NATO soldiers were killed.
In 2008, the number went to zero again, rose to 10 in 2009, 20 in 2010, and then to 36 last year. So far there have been 36 such killings in 2012. Last year’s grim record will almost certainly be broken.
Yet Obama said yesterday: "We are already doing a range of things, and we’re seeing some success when it comes to better counterintelligence, making sure that the vetting process for Afghan troops is stronger."
But is the US seeing success?
The blood, however, points to failure in this regard.
And beyond the loss of life itself is the certain erosion of whatever trust US trainers have in their Afghan counterparts, making the whole exercise of molding an army along Western lines that much harder. The Soviet Union tried to build an Afghan national army during its failed occupation of the country, and also dealt with the problem of Afghans killing their Soviet mentors. After the Soviet withdrawal from the country, the "army" quickly splintered into its various Tajik and Pashtun and Uzbek parts, and the vicious civil war that eventually spawned the Taliban was on.
Of course, the Afghan Army is growing, and more US trainers are in constant contact with Afghan soldiers, so the opportunity for such attacks has also grown.
What does Romney have to say about the issue?
Romney attacked Obama yesterday for being too vague about Afghanistan, with a series of vague and platitudinous comments of his own. Asked about Afghanistan during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Romney said:
"When our men and women are in harm’s way, I expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis and explain what’s happening and why they’re there, what the mission is, what its purpose is, how we’ll know when it’s completed. Other presidents have done this. We haven’t heard this president do this. This is something he ought to do time and time again so the people of America know where we stand.”
Actually, Obama often addresses the question of "why we're there": Defeat the Taliban, build a stable democracy, create Afghan institutions that will stand on their own when we go. He basically says about the Afghan mission what Romney said about it yesterday: "I will do everything in my power to transition from our military to their military as soon as possible, bring our men and women home and do so in a way consistent with our mission, which is to keep Afghanistan from being overrun by a new entity which would allow Afghanistan to be a launching point for terror again like it was on 9/11."
But statements of purpose don't accomplish anything on their own. And the US is rapidly coming up against the limits of its power, particularly when it comes to using the military as the agent of an experiment in revolutionary social change in foreign lands.
Should the Afghan war be a campaign issue? Of course. Will it be? Only occasionally, when a tragedy forces it onto the campaign agenda. Polling shows most Americans are fed up with the war, but that it's largely irrelevant to their voting preferences, which are driven more by their beliefs about which president will do a better job at restoring the economy to health. Fewer and fewer Americans know soldiers or Marines in harm’s way, and for many, the deaths afar are abstractions.
Today, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar ordered their citizens out of Lebanon after 30 Syrians were kidnapped in the country in retaliation for a Lebanese Shiite's kidnapping by rebel fighters in Syria.
Saudi, Qatar and the UAE are Sunni monarchies and support the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose regime draws much of its support from the minority Alawite sect he belongs to. Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite political party and militia in Lebanon, supports Mr. Assad, as does its patron Iran. The Saudi Embassy in Beirut particularly noted the threat of kidnapping by Shiite groups in the country.
Lebanon in the summer is a favorite destination for wealthy citizens of the Gulf monarchies, with its beaches and lax attitudes toward drinking alcohol and relations between the sexes. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends in a few days, and the holidays that follow often provide a tourism boost, with Beirut bars and nightclubs packed with wealthy Gulf Arabs.
While a financial blow for businesses in Beirut isn't nice, the warnings from the two Gulf states are a reminder of how much tension there is in the region, and concern it could spark major problems in Lebanon, which has recovered remarkably from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, but still remains a nation split along confessional lines, with Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze all maintaining their own political fiefdoms and militias.
Members of the Meqdad clan, a powerful Shiite tribe from the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, announced today that the "military wing" of the family had abducted more than 20 Syrians in Lebanon whom they alleged were fighters with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Meqdads said that the abductions were in response to the kidnapping, allegedly by the FSA, of Hassan Selim Meqdad in Damascus at the beginning of the week. The FSA accused Hassan Meqdad of being a member of Lebanon's militant Shiite group Hezbollah, a strong supporter of the Assad regime. Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied the claims, with the latter saying that he was an employee of a Lebanese bank...
The Meqdad clan does not have a formal armed faction, although some members of the family do serve with Hezbollah and, like all Bekaa Valley clans, they are fierecly independent, live by strict tribal codes of honor and solidarity, and scorn the authority of the Lebanese state. It would be a rare Meqdad who does not own at least one gun.
Lebanon's war was a playground for proxy battles between regional and global powers, and Syria's war increasingly looks like that today. Further, the Syrian regime was a major player in Lebanon's war and occupied the country until 2005. Assad retains an extensive intelligence network and many allies in the country. If Lebanese politicians and warlords aren't careful, conflict could spread. The country is heavily armed and many of its gunmen are far, far away from formal state control.
Tensions were heightened today by reports that all or some of 11 Lebanese Shiites, kidnapped while traveling home after a pilgrimage to Iran by rebel supporters of the Free Syrian Army in May, were killed by Syrian government airstrikes on rebel positions. One Lebanese television station reported all 11 were killed while an affiliate later reported that just four of them were killed, in Aleppo's Azaz neighborhood.
This story was updated after first posting to include that Qatar has also asked citizens to leave Lebanon.
After months of quiet, the drumbeat out of Israel for a war with Iran has started again. Iran is on the verge of a nuclear bomb, a point of "no return" as some Israeli politicians have it, and squadrons of anonymous sources, credulous reporters, and columnists have been mobilized to get out the word.
What happens next? Almost certainly a few months of quiet. And then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or a fellow hawk will strike up the band and we'll do this dance again.
Israel's security establishment is far from united on Iran, with many warning that a preemptive war could do more harm than good to Israel's interests. Israel and Western powers have been periodically warning that the Islamic Republic of Iran was on the verge of building a nuclear bomb since the early 1980s. As far back as 1992, Mr. Netanyahu, then a member of the Israeli parliament, said that Iran was five years away from a bomb and that its nuclear program must be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US."
That doesn't mean this latest round of the "sky is falling" Iran-Israel nuclear dance should be ignored. Rumors of war have a habit of becoming war when they carry on for long enough. Israeli anxiety about a nuclear Iran isn't feigned, and it would like to remain the region's sole nuclear armed state. And while it's hotly debated whether Iran is actually seeking the bomb, merely the technical skills to build a bomb, or only a peaceful nuclear power program, increasing technical confidence in Iran will always frighten Israelis. Some day it's possible that the band will play on.
The art of persuasion
But until then the talk of war is best seen as an attempt to sway American politicians and public opinion. Netanyahu and his allies, as a matter of national interest, want to persuade the US to go to war with Iran under certain conditions, well aware that striking a definitive blow against Iran's nuclear program is beyond their own capacity. Home Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Maariv newspaper, according to the BBC, that the country is prepared for a month-long war in the wake of a strike that he predicts would claim about 500 Israeli lives, and that "the United States is our greatest friend and we will always have to coordinate such moves with it."
That would appear to rule out unilateral action by Israel. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday that "I don't believe they've [Israel] made a decision as to whether or not they'll go in and attack Iran at this time... the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate. These sanctions, the additional sanctions, have been put in place, they're continuing to have an impact."
Netanyahu is popular in the US Congress, and his allies believe that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be more hawkish on Iran than President Obama, particularly a second-term Mr. Obama with little to fear in the way of the political repercussions of a softer stance towards Iran. In regards to the next four years, the window of maximum Israeli leverage on US policies toward Iran is the next three months.
'They assume the US will not attack'
That argument is supported by a piece written by Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran commentator on Israeli intelligence and military affairs, this week. Mr. Ben-Yishai quotes an anonymous "senior" Israeli official as laying out what the US needs to do to get Israel to tone down its rhetoric. "The Iranian regime is certain that in any case 2012 will pass peacefully," said the official. "They assume the US will not attack for fear of soaring oil prices and because of the presidential elections. They do not believe we will attack without a green light from Washington. Therefore, it is in the Americans' interest to convince the Iranians that the US may attack, not to convince us not to attack."
Ben-Yishai then asks "so what, according to the official, must the US do to prevent Israeli warplanes from taking off en route to Iran?" and answers that "Obama must repeat, publicly [at the UN General Assembly for instance], that the US will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and that Israel has a right to defend itself, independently... Israel is also demanding that Washington inform Iran that if significant progress in the negotiations with the P5+1 group [the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany] is not made within the next two weeks, the talks will be suspended."
The official also says Israel demands even tighter US and EU sanctions on Iran, a US military buildup in the Persian Gulf, and a promise from Obama to attack Iran before there is strong evidence it is on the verge of a nuclear bomb.
That's quite a list. And should be taken for what it is – a low cost effort to sway America's national security stance on Iran, rather than as a guarantee of a unilateral Israeli strike if Obama does not accede. For the moment, the Obama team seems convinced that national security decisions should be made in Washington.
Painted into a corner?
"It is worth remembering that Israel acquires significant leverage from this constant perception of imminent war," he writes. "My only concern is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, having made the case so often and so publicly for Israel’s right and even duty to attack, will have painted himself into a corner where there is no escape without actually risking national catastrophe. Yes, that is a possibility. But I have sufficient confidence in the operation of Israeli democracy and the instinct for self preservation of its leaders to regard that possibility as vanishingly small."
On the other side of the equation, leaks are being made about Israel's preparations for war in an attempt to head them off.
Richard Silverstein, a critic of the Netanyahu government who reports on Israeli national security, told the BBC today that a former Israeli senior minister from a previous government had given him a briefing paper that the minister told him Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are using to make the case for war inside the current cabinet. On his blog, Mr. Silverstein writes that the document is a "sales pitch" for war. In his translation, it says
A barrage of hundreds of cruise missiles will pound command and control systems, research and development facilities, and the residences of senior personnel in the nuclear and missile development apparatus. Intelligence gathered over years will be utilized to completely decapitate Iran’s professional and command ranks in these fields.
After the first wave of attacks, which will be timed to the second, the “Blue and White” radar satellite, whose systems enable us to perform an evaluation of the level of damage done to the various targets, will pass over Iran. Only after rapidly decrypting the satellite’s data, will the information be transferred directly to war planes making their way covertly toward Iran. These IAF planes will be armed with electronic warfare gear previously unknown to the wider public, not even revealed to our U.S. ally. This equipment will render Israeli aircraft invisible. Those Israeli war planes which participate in the attack will damage a short-list of targets which require further assault.
Is the document real? It would be a shocking security breach if so, and Silverstein offers no evidence of its accuracy beyond his anonymous sources and his own judgement. But there is plenty of strategic messaging, smoke, and mirrors to go around on Israel's war plans for Iran.
If Israel were to unilaterally attack, the US would almost certainly be drawn into the war. Obama's advisers know it. Watch for pushback from them on the idea in the days ahead.
Syria's civil war grinds on. Rebel forces claimed responsibility for a massive bomb blast in Damascus today that they said targeted a meeting of senior officers in Bashar al-Assad's Army. In the past week, rebel forces were routed from some neighborhoods of Aleppo, the country's commercial capital, after a hail of shells killed rebel fighters and civilians alike and left many districts of the city in ruins.
In other parts of Aleppo, the battle rages on, and for good reason. The loss of Syria's largest city would prove catastrophic for Mr. Assad. But the focus there is creating other problems for the regime. Reuters reports that the focus on Aleppo has left the eastern and overwhelmingly Sunni desert province of Deir al-Zor unprotected. Home to most of Syria's oil production and a long border with Iraq, across which fighters and supplies move relatively freely (jihadis flowed into Iraq from the Syrian side during the worst of that country's civil war) it's just the last front in an expanding war.
Much of the country has been swept up in lawlessness and banditry. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main rebel armed force, operating under the umbrella Syrian National Council, most of the rebel units are autonomous and locally run. Some take care to avoid harming civilians, others are unconcerned, operating out of heavily populated neighborhoods, and still others are indistinguishable from bandits. Government forces are as bad or worse, systematically looting conquered neighborhoods as a form of collective punishment and indulging in the torture for which the country's Baath regime is justly famous.
IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria
The United Nations mission in Syria, which began with naive promises and quickly unraveled, is at this point irrelevant to the course of the conflict. Kofi Annan is no longer in charge, and though there's speculation that Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will take his place, today's bomb attack in Damascus was next to a hotel filled with UN staff – a reminder of how dangerous it has become to move around even the capital, let alone the country's full-fledged war zones.
At this point, a diplomatic resolution to the war is almost impossible to imagine. Mr. Assad's regime has absorbed major body blows, including the defection last week of Prime Minister Riad Hijab (a Sunni), but has not come close to cracking. The minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to sees itself as locked into a war of group survival, not just regime survival.
The majority of the Sunni community that most rebel fighters draw from also fear surrender more than a continuing war. The history of Syria under Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez is one of unrelenting state terror for regime opponents.There would be absolutely no reason not to expect mass killings and whole families sent to state security dungeons would follow an abandonment of arms. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-style jihadis have also entered the Syrian mix, much as they established a presence in Iraq during the sectarian civil war that began there after the US-led invasion in 2003.
So internally, the battle lines within Syria are clearly drawn. And no matter how much anyone might try to wish away the sectarian nature of the conflict, that is the reality. The external component of the war is just as sectarian.
On one side, there are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, aiding the rebels and hoping for the fall of Assad's regime. On the other, Iran and its local junior partner Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia based in Lebanon. The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies are desperate for a Sunni Islamist order to take root in Syria, both as a black eye for their hated Iranian enemies and as way to spread their own vision of a religiously strict political order across the Arab world. The US is a partner in this effort, albeit a reluctant and nervous one. The US and the Syrian rebellion may see the war as a fight for democracy.
But America's close regional partner Saudi Arabia despises democracy and has far different ambitions, much as it did in Iraq. There, Saudi Arabian interests lost, and a Shiite political order is emerging that is far more in Tehran's orbit than in Riyadh's or Washington's. In Syria, the demographics are far more in favor of Saudi Arabia's interests, and the Kingdom sees an opportunity to reshape the regional balance against Iran.
The Iranians, for their part, are standing firm with Assad. Long gone is the time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were feted on the streets of Arab capitals as symbols of resistance to Israel and US power in the region, never mind that they were Shiites. Today a squalid sectarian view of regional power is more common, with Iran seen as responsible for the death of children and general carnage in Syria much as the US was seen by the so-called Arab street in the middle of the last decade.
Iran is eager for the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria (the Alawite sect is an offshot of Shiite Islam) to stand firm. Iranian government mouthpiece Press TV reports that Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said that Syria has "fallen prey to an axis of evil that centers on Tel Aviv and Washington" and that is also working through Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Iran agrees. The head of Iranian national security Saeed Jalili visited Damascus last week and said, "What is happening in Syria is not a domestic issue, but a conflict between the resistance axis and its enemies in the region and the world.”
Already the risks of a metastasizing sectarian conflict are clear. This week, rebels released a video of a bruised Lebanese man identified as Hassan Selim Meqdad. Mr. Meqdad said in a propaganda video released by his captors that he was a fighter from Hezbollah dispatched to Syria to fight on behalf of Assad. However, Hezbollah denied he was one of their fighters, and his family insists he was in Syria working for a Lebanese bank and has no ties to Hezbollah.
But the response in Lebanon was swift. Meqdad's Shiite clansmen said today they'd seized 20 Syrians and would hold them until he's released. In a propaganda video of their own released to a Lebanese TV station, two of the captives identified themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army.
Average Lebanese, with fresh memories of the horrors of their own civil war, are watching all this with some apprehension. While there is no sign of a major problem inside their country yet, the longer the Syrian war drags on, the greater the chance of spillover there will be. Syria, like Lebanon, hosts many Palestinian refugees, and both a flood of them or of Syrian Sunnis across the border – or perhaps, Alawites in the case of major reversals for the government – will heighten tensions inside the country.
And the complications don't stop there. Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights. Syria, like Turkey and Iraq, hosts its own restive Kurdish population, some of whose members are eager to carve out an enclave for themselves along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan. And while the Sunni Arab states of the region are hoping that the uprising wins, they also have to worry about the establishment of a major jihadi presence in Syria. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups hate the House of Saud almost as much as they hate the "apostate" Alawites.
About the only thing that can be said with certainty about Syria's war at this point is that it won't end soon, and that geopolitical maneuvering will have as much impact on its course as the desires of the country's 20 million people.
IN PICTURES: Inside Aleppo, Syria
It will be some weeks before the dust settles and strong assessments of the significance of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's reshuffle of the country's military brass this weekend become possible.
One point that was made over eight months ago by Robert Springborg, a scholar of Egypt's military, is worth keeping in mind. Then, he pointed out that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who ran Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) until being unceremoniously dumped by President Morsi on Sunday, was not in as strong a position within Egypt's military establishment as he often appeared. SCAF was then running the country, and rumors were rife that General Tantawi might seek to upend Egypt's transition to democracy. But Mr. Springborg warned of important divisions within the military over Tantawi:
"General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak's instrument to control the military. The measures he employed – including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution's primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty – resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF's mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities."
Indeed, Egypt's military is a shell of a fighting force, run more by CEOs than fighting men. A stark reminder of that was the16 poorly trained and equipped Egyptian border soldiers who were killed by jihadists in the Sinai on Aug. 5. The Free Officers coup in 1952 that spawned the military-led order that prevailed until Hosni Mubarak was driven out by a wave of popular protests in February 2011 was driven by a sense of humiliation among the officer corps at the 1948 defeat to Israel. The officers blamed their defeat on corruption and politicking among both civilian leaders and senior officers. Sixty-years later the Egyptian military is once again a tool of patronage and personal advancement more than a fighting force, and that must sting for many of Tantawi's subordinates.
Most analysts of Egyptian politics reason that Morsi must have had clear signals from members of SCAF and the military more generally that they would be happy to live without Tantawi. The 75-year-old Tantawi himself may have been happy to step aside in exchange for a guarantee that his own financial dealings wouldn't receive the same scrutiny as the Mubarak family's. Whatever really happened, there is plenty to chew on in Springborg's prescient piece.
What exactly has happened in the past week or so in Egypt? A timeline below.
August 5: After well over a year of sporadic attacks on pipeline traffic, kidnappings, and attempted infiltrations of the Israeli border, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by militants as they broke their Ramadan fast. The attackers, with stolen military vehicles, then attempted to attack an Israeli border post, which ended in their deaths. In the months before the attack, Israel had said it was deeply worried about security in the Sinai (it's building a sophisticated fence along much of the desert border) and US officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had repeatedly reached out to Tantawi and urged him to do more to get the violence in the Sinai under control.
August 8: In response to the attack, Morsi fired the country's head of intelligence as well as the head of the presidential guard, the head of the central security forces, and other officials. In hindsight, it appears he was ensuring the loyalty of the security officials most responsible for his own well-being.
August 11: The police tried to confiscated all copies of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has launched strident attacks on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The edition carried an editorial urging Egyptians to stand with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahead of that move the government had also suspended the broadcast license of Al-Faraeen TV, which has repeatedly attacked the Brothers. Dustour editor-in-chief Islam Afifi and Tawfiq Okasha, an outrageously conspiratorial television host on Al-Faraeen, have been charged with insulting Morsi, and Mr. Okasha faces a further charge of incitement to murder the president. Given what came next, many Egyptians have theorized that Morsi viewed their activities as a trial balloon for a move against him by SCAF. Five days earlier, Morsi had appointed Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Abdul Maqsud as Minister of Information, which many Egyptian journalists worry portends a new wave of government censorship.
August 12: Morsi sacks Tantawi and the heads of the army, navy, and air force. He also issues a document that effectively nullifies constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had sought to circumscribe the civilian president's power. Shortly after the announcement, many wondered if the military would fight back. There has been no sign of that since, and state media has carried reports that SCAF was both consulted and approved of his decision.
Almost certainly not. President Morsi's moves yesterday, taken in consultation with the Islamist movement that vaulted him to the presidency, were a bold reworking of the rules of the Egyptian transitional game. He sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the heads of the air force, army, and navy, appointed a respected judge as his vice president, and with the stroke of a pen undid a set of restrictions that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had imposed on Egypt's political transition.
By any measure, he and his movement are in a much stronger position than they were Saturday. But how long that position of strength will last, and how much Morsi will be able to accomplish, given the country's perilous financial position and tremendous political polarization, are far from clear. The military's still substantial influence, Morsi's need for foreign cash and support, and the fears of a sizable minority of Egyptians about the Brotherhood's goals have littered the political landscape with minefields.
Morsi announced that Tantawi would be kept on as an adviser, and many of the sacked generals were given senior posts in government companies or in the state bureaucracy. Though rumors flew around Egypt that Tantawi and former Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan were under house arrest, on allegations that they'd been plotting a coup, that seems highly unlikely. Replace a general? Sure. Send a message to the rich and powerful officer corps that they could end up stripped of their wealth or joining Mubarak in jail? That's the sort of thing that could galvanize the military and bureaucracy against him.
Though the move seemed like a bolt from the blue, it was clear that Morsi and his advisers had been laying the ground work for some time, and the chance that they felt out many senior officers before going ahead is very high. In hindsight, the ball got rolling after Aug. 5, when jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula attacked and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel. It was the deadliest attack on Egyptian troops in decades and a black eye for the security services, which have appeared helpless or unwilling to enforce order in the Sinai.
Morsi quickly fired intelligence boss Mourad Muwafi, the head of the military police, the head of the central security forces, and the head of the presidential guard, among others. The presidential guard and the CSF are directly responsible for the safety of the president and the capital, so it's not surprising he'd want people who owed their jobs to him in those posts before making any other moves.
On Saturday, the government banned the distribution of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has been sharply critical of Morsi and the Brothers. The Saturday edition carried an editorial accusing the Brotherhood of seeking to transform Egypt into an Islamic Emirate and urged Egyptians to stand with the military in the fight against Islamist politics. And opponents of the Brotherhood have called for street protests against the president on Aug. 24. That's plenty of context to understand why the Brothers might want to flex their muscles.
But has the situation in Egypt been transformed, as some takes have it?
For instance, The Times of London begins its story on yesterday's changes thus: "The sweeping away of the junta's old guard was a daring move by Egypt's President, reminiscent of the crucial scene of The Godfather when Michael Corleone does away with all his family's enemies in one fell swoop while cutting deals with others."
The piece does immediately caveat that dramatic opening paragraph. "Yet the fact that Mohammed Morsi, the 'spare tyre' President who came to power only because the junta managed to block the Muslim Brotherhood's favoured candidate, appears to have consulted military leaders hints at yet another backroom deal in Egypt's cut-throat politics."
No coup and no killings
But still, no: Morsi has not, in fact, liquidated his toughest opponents, as Michael did in the famous Godfather sequence showing his henchman slaughtering his enemies while he attends his son's baptism and promises to "renounce Satan and all his works." The new heads of Egypt's military branches come from within the system, and the outgoing old guard retains both influence and the great wealth that Egypt's senior officer class has long been rewarded with.
The various articles that write of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood somehow executing a "coup" likewise miss the mark. At the moment, Morsi is the only Egyptian politician with any electoral legitimacy. When SCAF was running the show, the elected parliament was dissolved under a court order. SCAF itself? A group of generals, all of whom owed their position to Mr. Mubarak, who had sought to keep Egypt's civilian politicians under wraps. He has simply exchanged some of the personalities within the bureaucratic and military pyramid.
This is not to say that Morsi and the Brothers aren't seeking to solidify their political position. That's clearly the objective from recent moves and the whole political dance that continues to unfold in Egypt. Marc Lynch turned his keen eye to events in Egypt over the weekend, arguing this is at most a mid-game gambit, not a master stroke.
"My general take is still that the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position. That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate. For example, presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend's moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective. In this arena, Morsi's moves were a bold and unexpected frontal assault on the senior military leadership, but not a decisive one. His appointment of the respected jurist Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President could be seen as another such bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary. But bold as the moves were, they don't instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics. Morsi today is more of a President, but Egypt is a long way from the "Islamic Republic" being bandied about by the Brotherhood's critics"
Long and grinding indeed. Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February 2011. Today, the country does not have a sitting parliament, a new constitution, or a clear sense of political direction. When will parliamentary elections be held, and who will win? Will Morsi try to use his new powers to ram a new constitution through that will enrage secular forces in society, or try to appoint a more inclusive body to write the new rules of the game? Actions on those matters, hopefully soon, will begin to add some clarity to what has just happened.
The expected showdown between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the military establishment that has consistently maneuvered to preserve its own power and privilege arrived today, far sooner than almost everyone expected.
President Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that ran Egypt from the time Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 until Morsi's election earlier this year. Also fired were the acting chiefs of Egypt's military branches, who all served on the council. Morsi also unilaterally annulled constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had taken the power to legislate out of Morsi's hands.
The reaction so far from the military? None.
There have been no statements, no mobilization of troops, no evidence that they're going to stand up to Egypt's first elected civilian president. The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed for decades and that the security establishment of Egypt was focused on containing for over 50 years, now theoretically holds all the formal political power in the Arab world's largest country. He can legislate, nominate members of the constitutional drafting committee, set foreign policy, and apparently shuffle the senior ranks of the military at will.
Egypt's elected parliament was dissolved by a court order earlier this year backed by SCAF, and the only official balancing authority against the presidency left are the courts. But will the judges act against Morsi's moves today absent overt backing from the military? That seems unlikely, but all things are possible in a country with neither a democratic tradition nor any history of civilian political authority.
"So far, it either seems like [the military is] acquiescing, which is totally out of sorts with how they've played everything for the past 18 months ... or it suggests there are bigger divisions within SCAF than maybe we were led to believe," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York who has been studying Egypt's transition. "There's been a very clear implicit message until now that the army is not going to turn over all the keys of power to the [Muslim Brotherhood] and now that they've made the ultimate power play there hasn't been a response."
In many ways, the move is a simple assertion of civilian authority over the generals, something the US has been urging for the past year-and-a-half. But a politically-neutered army, if that's what has just happened, is not exactly what the US is interested in, given the Muslim Brotherhood's stance towards Israel, particularly given that Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, is an offshoot of the organization.
Also ousted today were Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan, Navy Commander Mohab Memish, and Air Force Commander Reda Hafez. Morsi appointed senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president, and named Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi as the new minister of defense. General Mohamed el-Asser, who was appointed deputy defense minister, told Reuters "the decision was based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council." Morsi's government said most of the fired generals would be retained as advisers or given senior civilian jobs in the state bureaucracy.
The absence of a parliament and a new constitution had until now left SCAF, a group of generals who owe their position to the now jailed Mr. Mubarak, as the only counterbalance to the presidency. The rules of the political contest in Egypt have been completely fluid, or in scholar Marc Lynch's coinage, an Egyptian version of Calvinball, with the rules constantly and capriciously changed by the players to see what they can get away with.
Today, Morsi has just declared "I win, you lose" to SCAF, and every hour that passes without a counter move by the army increases the chances that his declaration will stick.
"People like Tantawi and Enan do have a kind of ideological allergy to the Muslim Brotherhood. But now all their political power is gone, your senior leaders have been sacked, and now the president has all the levers of authority," says Mr. Hanna. He suggests that either the military is unwilling to take the nuclear option – a naked military coup – or the Brothers have been able to cut deals with other senior generals.
Either way, "now Morsi is a dictator on paper ... from my perspective, from any perspective, that's worrying. This is acting by fiat," says Hanna.
Egyptians who have been suspicious that the Brotherhood will seek to wrest full power for itself, and try to wipe away Egypt's secular state in favor of an overtly Islamic one, were alarmed by today's move. It followed the government seizure of Saturday's edition of Al-Dustour, a daily paper owned by a Christian, for "fueling sedition" and "harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law." Tawfiq Okasha, a conspiratorially-minded television personality sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck, who has repeatedly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned from foreign travel today. The television station he helps run had its broadcast license suspended last week.
Is this a pure power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood? It is far too soon to say, and some analysts doubt that the military's political power has been anywhere close to crushed. The military establishment still controls vast portions of the Egyptian economy and is central to ongoing efforts to restore order in the Sinai Peninsula. And the generals, after all, have the keys to the country's arsenal.
Issandr El Amrani writes that the senior officers who were promoted today were part of the establishment, not figures from left field, and "this continuity suggests to me that we are dealing with a reconfigured SCAF that is nonetheless a powerful entity that still has powers parallel to the presidency and other civilian institutions. It is not, as the initial reaction to today’s news largely was, a victory by Morsi over the military. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of the relationship."
Still, he writes: "These moves will be seen by many opponents of the Brotherhood as a power grab, and the fact that Morsi has amassed considerable power (again, on paper) is indeed cause for concern. The power to appoint a new constitutional assembly is particularly key, if he ends up using it, I certainly hope it will be to appoint something acceptable to non-Islamists rather than impose the one Islamists wanted earlier this year (unfortunately, the MB’s sense of electoral entitlement makes me pessimistic here.)"
The murders of 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday by militants, who then sought to use stolen armored cars to storm the Israeli side of the border, has been commonly framed as evidence of the "deteriorating" security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, and evidence that the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi, must come to grips with a "new" crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
In fact, the Sinai has been a long-running problem in Egyptian security. In 2004, coordinated attacks killed 34 people near Taba, an Egyptian city popular at the time with Israeli tourists. That was Egypt's first terrorist attack since 1997, when a massacre of tourists at Luxor sparked a wide-ranging and successful crackdown on militant groups. Then in 2005, a series of bombs struck Sharm al-Sheikh, another Sinai resort town (Mubarak spent much of his time at a villa there), killing more than 80 people.
The government of Mubarak responded ferociously to the attacks in the Sinai. After Taba, more than 3,000 residents of Al-Arish on the peninsula were arrested under draconian security laws. Few of the detainees had anything to do with the attacks, and local and international human rights groups who interviewed detainees said many had been tortured.
Were those methods "successful?" Well, there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on tourists in the Sinai since the bombing at the beach resort of Dahab in April, 2006. (This piece has been updated since it was published. The original version omitted the Dahab attack.)
But the crackdown by state security in the territory, seized by Israel after the 1967 war and only fully returned to Egypt in 1989, increased the alienation of the region's Bedouin communities from the central government. The Bedouin were already receiving far less in government financial support than most of the rest of the country. On top of that, the dysfunctional situation where Egypt formally participates with Israel on restricting the transfer of goods and people to and from Gaza but tolerates the smuggling tunnels to Gaza as a circuit breaker on economic and social upheaval there, has empowered local gangsters and smugglers, and fed corruption inside the Egyptian security services. Weapons, tax-free cigarettes, baby diapers, and illegal drugs all flow through the region.
So in Sinai, the table is set for militants to operate. Nothing new there. But it's a new order in Egypt that will have to deal with it. And in that process, a whole series of risks and challenges are going to burble to the surface: civilian political authority vs. the power of the Egyptian military; an Egyptian-Israeli relationship that is almost certainly going to end up reconfigured as a consequence of the arrival of democratic politics in Egypt; an informal agreement between Israel and the Egyptian military over Gaza that clearly isn't working.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi almost certainly doesn't want to run the old Mubarak playbook of "round up everyone with a beard," given his own beliefs and his constituency. And his sympathy for Hamas would probably time-limit any increased policing of the smuggling tunnels to Gaza. But it isn't entirely up to him.
Dead letter promises?
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains at least as powerful a political player in Egypt as the elected president, and today, military officials told the Egyptian press they'd be sending teams to destroy the Gaza tunnels, insisting that the security breach entirely emanated from the strip. Will they follow through? And what will Morsi do when the inevitable claims of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza emerge? We'll see. For the moment, his promise to ease the restrictions on Gaza is a dead letter. And Egypt's generals have a new tool to use in cementing their own political power.
In Gaza, the effects of the attack were immediate. Not only did Israel and Egypt close the official border crossings, but Hamas immediately responded by closing the smuggling tunnels into Egypt to assist in looking for surviving attackers (most of them appeared to have been killed by Israeli forces). Local residents were anxious about food and fuel shortages, and angry over the attack, which buried any chances of Egypt substantially easing its end of the blockade any time soon.
The cui bono thinking that's inevitable after events like these leads to very few potential winners.
The attack was almost certainly carried out by jihadis, who have long operated in the Sinai, where sophisticated smuggling groups, a local population that resents central government authority, and a sparse population give them plenty of room to operate. But in Gaza, as on the Egyptian side of the border at Rafah, there was fury at the attacks, which both Egypt and Israel claimed involved militants who had crossed into Egypt from Gaza. Judging by the history of attacks, Egyptians will almost certainly have been involved as well.
Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a far cry from the nihilistic fellow travelers of Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda-style militants despise the modernist Muslim Brotherhood as too accommodating of the modern world and its political conventions.
But Gaza does have Al Qaeda-inspired militants living and working there. In August 2009, Hamas forces took on an Al Qaeda-inspired group that sought to declare an "Islamic emirate" in Gaza. The battle on the Gaza side of Rafah ended with 22 people dead, six of them Hamas security forces. Despite that defeat, jihadi groups continue to operate in Gaza, and their ultimate aim is to seize power from Hamas, however unlikely that is to come to pass.
While most there will assume Hamas had nothing to do with an attack that is a black eye for Morsi and hurt the Gazan economy, nevertheless they are the power in the Strip, and will receive plenty of blame for any increase in suffering. Anything that delegitimizes Hamas – and the Brotherhood in Egypt – is seen as positive by jihadis.
Can they win? No. Can they create a great deal of mischief and misery? Yes. The killings on Sunday are evidence enough of that. Are the Egyptian military and Morsi, more rivals than partners, likely to bring a durable stability to the Sinai, with an Egyptian constitution as yet unwritten, and parliamentary elections looming in the not too distant future?
Well, one can hope.