Since "country x is not country y" is one of my mantras, I've declined. I covered the fall of both men, and see very little beyond superficial similarities between Indonesia in 1998 and Egypt today.
But a small literature comparing Egypt's uprising to Indonesia's in 1998 has cropped up, suggesting Indonesia may be a predictor or a model for Egypt. So I've decided to throw my hat into the ring as a corrective.
The latest example to catch my eye is John T. Sidel's essay in Foreign Policy. Dr. Sidel, an academic focused on Southeast Asia, begins by listing a set of "striking parallels" between Egypt now and Indonesia over a decade ago: The countries are big, with Muslim majorities and significant non-Muslim minorities. They were led by anti-Western gadflies in the 50s and 60s. And after that they were military-dominated dictatorships with warm relations with the US, particularly during the cold war.
This is all true, but not particularly relevant or instructive. Most discussions of what Egypt and Indonesia have in common ignore the rather striking differences between their economies, geographies, and historical experiences. These differences are far more important than both states having lots of Muslims.
Indonesia is an archipelago blessed with vast natural resources. It has abundant natural gas and oil production that, though dwindling, dwarfs Egypt's. The country holds the richest tropical forests outside of the Amazon, the largest copper and gold mine in the world, and is the dominant exporter of commodities ranging from palm oil (with exports worth about $14 billion a year) to natural rubber ($7 billion a year) to plywood and paper.
Indonesia has dramatically more arable land than Egypt, with parts of Java and Bali home to some of the most productive soils on the globe. Traditionally, rich farmland has taken the edge off of economic shocks, with laid off factory workers returning to the village.
So, the geographic and economic reality couldn't be more different between Egypt and Indonesia. Indonesia was a funnel for foreign manufacturing investment before the 1998 economic crisis that led to Soeharto's downfall, and was so again a few years after. The country was soon booming again –thanks in part to having China and India nearby – creating jobs and leading average Indonesians to be happier with political change. Egypt, with creaky infrastructure and low productivity, has been losing manufacturing jobs for years. Egypt's prospects for a fast economic recovery – let alone a boom like Indonesia's – are much grimmer, and economics influences politics.
Sidel's comparison of the revitalization of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) under Megawati Sukarnoputri in the early to mid-1990s and the rise of the Kifaya (Enough) movement in Mubarak's final years is also misplaced.
Megawati, as the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, had an almost pre-fab cult of personality around her, with many early supporters muttering that she had some of her father's mystical aura. The PDI was one of two opposition political parties legally tolerated by Soeharto, and he allowed her to take the reins, reasoning that a poorly-educated and inexperienced housewife would prove easy to control.
Soeharto's guess was wrong, mostly because an ambitious group of reformers hitched themselves to Megawati's star and started real opposition politics as Soeharto's family members began jockeying to succeed the aging leader.
She was eventually removed as the head of the party, though perhaps had the last laugh when she became Indonesia's president in 2001. Once in power, she demonstrated autocratic tendencies, a hyper-nationalism that sought to forgive human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, and an unwillingness to take steps that might effect the power and privilege of the Indonesian elite she'd been born into.
The Kifaya movement in Egypt was a far looser protest movement opposed to the continued rule of Mubarak and the obvious plans the regime was laying for succession by his son, Gamal (another superficial, but not particularly interesting parallel with Soeharto; despots frequently like dynastic succession). But Kifaya hasn't existed in any real sense for years, never had a unifying political personality like "Mother Mega" (as her fans called her), and the activists that worked with it years ago have splintered into various political camps – socialist, Islamist, etc... since.
And though the ultimate cause of Soeharto's demise was the military withdrawal of support, as was the case with Mubarak, Soeharto was immediately replaced by his civilian vice president, BJ Habibie. Egypt's military, meanwhile, has ruled directly for the past year in a fashion more like the military command council that followed Soeharto's 1965 coup than post-Soeharto Indonesia in 1998.
The mercurial Habibie defied the military and set the stage for the independence of tiny East Timor. By June of 1999 the country had held its first free legislative elections since 1955. The result? The dominance of secular parties in the new legislature (among them Soeharto's Golkar, which unlike Mubarak's NDP was not outlawed). Islamist parties took about 35 percent of the vote (compared to the over 70 percent Islamist groups won in Egypt's just completed parliamentary election.)
Indonesia did experience years of upheaval, with some horrific religious wars in Maluku and parts of Sulawesi. Egypt, too, could face religious conflict as Sidel suggests. But Sidel is wrong to see "many parallels" between the war in Maluku, which was as much about cultural clashes between economic migrants and longstanding residents as it was about faith, and the recent killing of Coptic protesters by Egypt's military during a protest outside the state TV building in Cairo.
The nature of communal religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt is far different from those in Indonesia, which is also a dramatically more religious and culturally diverse place. Exhibit A might be Abdurrahman Wahid, Habibie's successor. Mr. Wahid was the hereditary head of a mass organization called the Nahdlatul Ulama, or roughly "The Revival of Muslim scholars." His National Awakening Party won 12.5 percent of the vote in the first post-Soeharto elections, making it the biggest "Islamist" party in Parliament (compare that to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is the single largest party in Parliament, with about 48 percent of the seats).
But Sidel suggests that Wahid's success parallels the Egyptian experience so far. But Mr. Wahid is a brand of "Islamist" that almost no one in Egypt would recognize. He was a long term defender of religious pluralism, the right of Muslims to convert to other faiths (most Brotherhood members would be uncomfortable with this). He made a habit of meditating and communing with the Javanese spirits for guidance (the average Brother's discomfort would shoot to horror at this point) and he once told eminent Indonesianist William Liddle that his favorite book was My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok's allegory about a descendant of a long line of rabbis struggling to reconcile modernity and faith. Potok is not generally found on Brotherhood reading lists.
Sidel concludes his piece by suggesting that Egypt could very well follow the footsteps of Indonesia, which has prospered mightily since the fall of Soeharto, and forged a much more open and responsive political culture than had ever been possible there. Let's hope he's right. But Indonesia, with its dramatically different culture, economic standing, and results in early elections, teaches us nothing about what's coming next in Egypt.
Last week, Libya's transitional leaders requested that Niger extradite a son of Muammar Qaddafi to stand trial in the country. Today, a new report from Amnesty International lays out its case for why it would be crazy for anyone to send someone to the new Libya to face "justice."
More than six months since Muammar Qaddafi was killed near his hometown, the torture and murder of former Qaddafi loyalists (or suspected loyalists) remain widespread. Some of the victims are sub-Saharan Africans caught in the crossfire of Libya's war, who the revolutionaries insist fought for Qaddafi. (When I was in Libya last year, I was shown African men, wearing rags and some without proper shoes, described as "mercenaries" for Qaddafi; that did not seem accurate to me.)
The militias that toppled Qaddafi's dictatorship remain outside of any central authority and, in the picture painted by Amnesty, are increasingly behaving like ferocious regional mafias. During and immediately after the war, the militias murdered scores of Qaddafi supporters in captivity, tortured many others, and razed the homes of still others to punish them for their political beliefs.
Now, Amnesty says "hundreds of armed militias ... are largely out control," that armed clashes between rival militias are "frequent," and that "thousands" of people remain illegally detained by the militias.
Amnesty researchers met "scores" of torture victims in Tripoli, Zawiya, Gharyan, Misrata, and Sirte in January and February. The victims reported a range of torture methods used against them that were once standard in Qaddafi's own prison system: electric shocks, extensive burning, whippings with metal chains, and hours tied up in contorted stress positions. Some militia members opposed to torture told Amnesty they feared reprisals if they spoke out against it.
During Libya's uprising against Qaddafi, rebel leaders and supporters spoke confidently and often about the new era of respect for human rights that would be ushered in with the demise of Qaddafi. The reality of the early days of the new Libya has been far shot of those lofty promises. The country hasn't had the rule of law for more than 40 years, and vengeance is almost always sought in the aftermath of violent revolutions. But having spent more than two months in Libya at the start of last year, I didn't expect the situation to be as bad as the one described by Amnesty.
I imagined, wrongly as it's turned out, that the Transitional National Council would be able to use the carrot of oil revenue to bring the regional militias under control once the war was over. I was also wrong in thinking the scope of reprisals would be far more limited. Amnesty writes that the NTC "appears to have neither the authority nor the political will to rein in the militias" and is "unwilling to recognize ... the mounting evidence of patterns of grave, widespread abuses in many parts of the county."
How bad is it? There has been no investigation into the murder of 65 people in Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte last October, despite some of the militiamen responsible having been identified; 30,000 people from Tawargha have been expelled from their homes (most of which have since been destroyed) and have not been allowed to return home for the crime of having supported Qaddafi; former soldiers have been tortured until they falsely confessed to rape; others have died after hours of electric shocks and the use of nails and drills.
Libya's revolutionaries aren't the plucky underdogs fighting for freedom anymore. They're the most powerful people in the country, at least for the moment, and some of them, according to the report, are doing horrific things with that power. Libya is currently planning elections for June, but it's hard to imagine a fair or accountable process until the militias are brought under some kind of control.
The Sun – Rupert Murdoch's racy tabloid famous for pages filled with de-bodiced young women, jingoistic headlines in times of war and international football, and vicious verbal attacks on its critics – is now playing the victim.
Exhibit A from yesterday's edition is deputy editor Trevor Kavanagh's "Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press Freedom."
Mr. Kavanagh's rant was a response to the arrests of five senior Sun journalists over the weekend on allegations of bribing public officials. Four other Sun reporters have also recently been arrested as part of an ongoing probe into bribery of public officials and illegally hacking into the cell phones of crime victims, celebrities, and politicians.
As Kavanagh tells it, the widening probe (which already saw multiple arrests and the demise of The Sun's sister weekly tabloid, The News of the World) has left the British press less free than in former Soviet republics. Not only is The Sun maintaining its tradition of hysteria and hyperbole, but Kavanagh has also managed to cement the paper's reputation for myopia and insularity.
RELATED: Key people to watch as News of the World scandal unfolds
Yes, it's true that Britain was ranked 28th in press freedom by Reporters Without Borders last year behind Poland, Estonia, and Slovakia, as Kavanagh writes (the US ranked 47). But only one of those is a former Soviet state (Estonia), and enforcing existing laws against bribery and invasions of privacy isn't press censorship.
For real challenges to press freedom, look to former Soviet states like Kazakhstan (154), where journalists covering labor protests were beaten with bats last year; Turkmenistan (177), where all media is controlled by the state and where a reporter was sentenced to five years in jail last year for reporting on an explosion at a military weapons depot; or even Kyrgyzstan (108), where all broadcasters are controlled by the state and where reporters are routinely beaten by thugs.
Russia ranks 142. Crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who focused on military human rights abuses and corruption, was murdered for her work in 2006. Three men connected to the Federal Security Bureau were tried for her murder and acquitted.
Yet Kavanagh feels his paper is being ganged up on. "In what would at any other time cause uproar in Parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, [The Sun's] journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang," he writes.
Organized crime gang, huh?
Senior executives of News International, the holding company for Murdoch's papers in Britain, have admitted to lying to the police and destroying evidence of criminal activity. Police have uncovered a pattern of law-breaking extending over a period of years at multiple Murdoch papers that have resulted in a number of arrests. The police say they have evidence of bribery of public officials by Sun reporters over a period of years.
Over the years, the paper has bullied and harassed its enemies. Clare Short, a former member of parliament (MP) who had advocated restrictions on naked women in Britain's national press, was subjected to a busload of scantily clad women parked outside of her home courtesy of the Sun in 2004. A Sun headline branded her "Fat, jealous Clare."
News Corp., meanwhile, is now cooperating with police investigators and an internal investigation is what led to the latest arrests (many British reporters say the tradition of omerta within the Murdoch papers has been severely strained by that cooperation).
Kavanagh's piece also appears to imply that the effort to root out corruption is putting citizens at risk. He writes, "Major crime investigations are on hold as 171 police are drafted in to run three separate operations. In one raid, two officers revealed they had been pulled off an elite 11-man anti-terror squad trying to protect the Olympics from a mass suicide attack."
The Metropolitan Police is taking issue with Kavanagh's assertions, however.
It issued a statement in which it said none of the arrests involved more than 10 officers, contrary to Kavanagh's "up to 20 officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents." It also said that "given the seriousness of the allegations currently under investigation and the significant number of victims, the [Metropolitan Police Service] does not believe that the level of resources devoted to the three inquiries is in any way disproportionate to the enormous task in hand... At no stage has any major investigation been compromised as a result of these deployments."
There are, of course, real concerns about press freedom in Britain. Some MPs have called for tighter regulation of the press, sensing an opening in the public revulsion at the antics of The Sun and The News of the World. Hopefully, they won't succeed.
This story was edited after posting to correct the spelling of Mr. Kavanagh's name.
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Two attempts to assassinate Israeli diplomats failed in India and Georgia today – the wife of Israel's military attaché in Delhi was slightly injured by a bomb attached to her car, while the bomb on an Israeli diplomat's car in Tbilisi was detected before any harm was done.
A coincidence – two isolated swipes at Israel – seems highly unlikely. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blamed both Iran and Hezbollah for the attack. That's plausible, but it's impossible to know anything for certain in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Both Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group that receives much of its financing from Iran, make sense as prime suspects. The attacks came a day after the four-year anniversary of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah's assassination in Damascus, Syria.
Mr. Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah official, was indicted by Argentina in connection with two deadly attacks on Israeli missions there in the 1990s. He was killed by a bomb planted under the dashboard of his car. At the time of his death, Hezbollah blamed Israel for the murder, and vowed revenge, though Israeli officials said they were not involved.
RELATED: Nicholas Blanford: Q&A on Hezbollah
Iran, too, has claimed reason to strike out at Israel. Officials in Tehran have said that a wave of assassinations against military officials and civilians working on its nuclear program was arranged by Israel and has vowed to retaliate. Israel has refused to confirm or deny its involvement in those attacks. Last week, NBC news cited an unnamed US official as saying that Israel is financing and training the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian militant group on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations, to carry out the assassination campaign in Iran.
So either Iran or Hezbollah, or both, are reasonable objects of suspicion in today's attacks. But it's hardly a secret that Israel is unpopular with a range of militant groups, many of them deeply hostile to Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. And no evidence has been provided to support the assertion.
The obvious backdrop to all this is the growing push for a war with Iran over its nuclear program, and you can take it to the bank that these two attacks will be used in the coming days to bolster arguments that Iran is an implacable foe that can't be reasoned with, and steps stronger than sanctions will be needed to dissuade them from their nuclear ambitions.
(Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful uses only. The US intelligence establishment says there is no evidence of ongoing nuclear weapons-related work in Iran, a conclusion that many Israel and American politicians disagree with.)
But the truth could lie elsewhere, and it's worth keeping an open mind until evidence emerges. Israel frequently walks back early statements of blame in terror attacks. Last August, after a bloody cross-border attack from Egypt on the Israeli town of Eilat, Israel immediately blamed Hamas, the Sunni militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Retaliatory air strikes were soon carried out on Hamas members in Gaza. At the time, Israeli officials said Hamas gunmen had crossed through tunnels into Egypt's Sinai peninsula and made their way to Eilat from there.
But a month later, the Israeli Defense Forces's analysis of the events determined that all of the attackers were Egyptian natives.
In this case, Israel's early finger-pointing certainly makes sense. But it made sense to a certain extent after the Eilat attacks, too.
I spent five years covering the Iraq war, and at the end of it I was not inclined to believe anything official spokesmen had to say about Iraq anymore. I heard denials an insurgency was erupting in 2003, watched President Bush's "mission accomplished" moment after Saddam Hussein was captured, and was earnestly told Iraq's insurgency was on its last legs in 2005.
Again and again, the gap between observed reality and official rhetoric was wider than the ocean. I've only taken one reporting trip to Afghanistan, but follow the story from a distance and know many reporters who have lived there for years. Most of them believe, much as the Baghdad press corps did back in the day, that military spokesmen are running an information operation, not a clearing house for facts and honest opinion.
Now a colonel who just finished his tour in Afghanistan is backing that position up, in some of the most candid and critical comments you'll ever read from a serving officer. Many are certain to disagree with Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis' conclusions in Truth, lies, and Afghanistan. But his argument against continuing the war there is as straight and clear as a tracer bullet, particularly coming from a serving officer.
Davis spent most of last year in Afghanistan working with the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, a job he says took him "into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy. Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces. What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground."
He writes: "I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level." He also reports low moral among soldiers, doubtful the risks they're taking are doing much good, and incidents of Afghan soldiers trained and equipped by the US working with the Taliban.
The assessment differs sharply with the tone of progress emerging from the top brass. For instance, a press release from the end of January from the US Department of Defense information office begins:
"Almost a month into 2012 -- a year both Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, called pivotal to operations there -- International Security Assistance Force officials said last year’s accomplishments have set the stage for continued success."
But Colonel Davis provides a different assessment from those on the ground. He recounts a conversation in September he held with an Afghan official who serves as a cultural adviser to the US commander in Kunar Province. Davis asked him if Afghan security forces would be able to hold out against the Taliban when US troops withdraw from the province.
“No. They are definitely not capable," the adviser told him. "Already all across this region [many elements of] the security forces have made deals with the Taliban. [The ANSF] won’t shoot at the Taliban, and the Taliban won’t shoot them."
"How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by US senior leaders in Afghanistan? No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on."
Colonel Davis, who did a previous combat tour in Afghanistan during 2005-2006 and in Iraq from 2008-2009 was clearly shaken by what he saw this go around. His public statements are unusual in the extreme for a serving officer. In case you missed the link to his piece in the Armed Forces Journal the first time, here it is again.
But Egypt has consistently upped the ante with the administration in this confrontation. The latest move came Sunday, with the military junta deciding to put 40 employees of these and other democracy promotion groups on trial – including 19 US citizens. Sam LaHood, the son of President Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is one of a group of Americans currently living in the US Embassy to avoid arrest.
Mr. LaHood and a few of the other officials targeted by Egypt, which says it is investigating illegal foreign funding to political groups, have been barred from leaving the country. The threatened prosecutions are focused on 10 foreign and domestic groups, among them the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House, all heavily financed by US taxpayers.
At the end of January, Senator John McCain, who is friends with the LaHood family as well as chairman of IRI, warned Egypt in stark terms: "I have watched with growing alarm and outrage how the Egyptian government is treating US non-governmental organizations that are working peacefully and transparently to support civil society in Egypt."
What may be behind the confrontation is the growing paranoia of Egypt's ruling generals about continuing protests over military rule. The generals and their civilian supporters consistently warn that malevolent "foreign hands" are behind the protests. They could be prosecuting the NGOs to rally domestic support and redefine the protesters as working with foreigners against Egypt.
"The government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland," Faiza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation, told the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper. Ms. Aboul Naga has spearheaded the NGO probes and sought for years to increase the share of US aid to Egypt directly under the government's control. Freedom House described Naga as a "Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society."
Though the groups were not licensed under the Mubarak-era laws designed to control and limit civil society organizations, the American NGOs had been tolerated in Egypt for years and were in frequent communication with the authorities. If Egypt had wanted to curtail their activities, a quiet word could have done so while avoiding this blossoming diplomatic crisis.
"The Egyptian authorities are using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute nongovernmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly implied she had told her Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Amr that Egypt's aid was at risk if the country did not back down, and that followed a week of more explicit warnings from lawmakers. "We will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances," she told reporters in Munich.
Congress recently attached conditions to Egypt's aid, requiring that the military keep the peace with Israel, demonstrate steps towards handing over full power to civilians, and make progress on human rights before aid would be released.
"The Egyptian military is clearly not meeting at least two of those three conditions right now. Consequently, the Obama administration should not certify compliance, nor should it invoke the national security waiver by arguing that Egyptian-Israeli peace is paramount and that Egypt’s military is the only bulwark against Islamist domination of the country – because both of these arguments are deeply flawed," Michelle Dunne and Shuja Nawaz wrote in the New York Times last Friday. Ms. Dunne is a former State Department official and National Security Council staffer focused on the Middle East.
Egypt is in desperate need of foreign assistance. Tourism and investment have collapsed since the uprising began and capital flight has seen foreign exchange reserves more than halved to about $15 billion, enough to cover about three months of imports. Despite Egypt's shaky finances, the junta has continued to take a series of steps that are going to make it harder for aid to flow.
In addition to going after NGOs, foreign and domestic, the most famous actor in Egypt was given a three month jail sentence last week for "insulting Islam" in his film roles over the years. Adel Imam is probably one of the two or three most popular actors in the Arab world.
That sentence was handed down with the military, not the Islamists that dominated recent parliamentary elections, in the driver's seat. Though parliament has convened, Egypt's system concentrates power in the hands of the executive. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) currently occupying the executive role has repeatedly signaled it wants its political influence to extend to the writing of a new constitution. Presidential elections have been promised for later this year.
US democracy NGOs have run into trouble with the Egyptian government in the past, but not to this extent. The work of IRI and NDI in Egypt was suspended for months in 2006, again at the instigation of Aboul Naga, but there were no prosecutions or threats of arrest. The two groups eventually worked out an arrangement with the Mubarak government to resume highly-monitored outreach efforts.
But in the last 24 hours Assad's regime unleashed a series of assaults across the country that opposition groups insisted amounted to indiscriminate targeting of unarmed civilians. They claim more than 200 killed since yesterday afternoon, though reporters with contacts on the ground have begun to speculate the death toll is exaggerated.
Worst hit was Homs, were activists said parts of the city were turned into free fire zones by government troops seeking the latest set of army defectors who fled into the city. Frightening footage made its way out of Homs to back their assertions, including a group of bound and mostly naked armed men, found murdered in a home in the city.
The carnage in Syria promised to make this morning's UNSC showdown more explosive, and some Syrian activists hoped it would move Russia and China toward at least an abstention. The two powers voted in favor of the first UNSC resolution on Libya last year, and abstained from voting on the second, which authorized the use of international force.
But the activists were disappointed. When the vote on the resolution came, 13 hands went up in support, including South Africa, Brazil and India, which had opposed UN action in Libya. China and Russia went the other way.
Those votes from South Africa, Brazil and India were just one of the indications of Syria's growing international isolation. Tunisia announced today it was expelling the Syrian ambassador, and Algeria looked to be moving in that direction as well.
But with two veto wielding members of the UNSC digging in, it's hard to measure what diplomatic isolation means. That the two states held firm was far from surprising. Russia in particular has been vocal in proclaiming that it felt tricked by UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya, which led to a sustained NATO bombing campaign in support of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi. Russia says it expected armed action would only be taken to protect the civilian population, and that the armed and coordinated support from NATO for the rebels, who won their war, went far beyond the UN mandate.
Determined to not allow that to happen again and concerned about the precedent that such actions set, Russia insisted that it would only support a resolution that explicitly ruled out regime change or eventual armed intervention (which was not in the cards in the current resolution). Russia also sought language in the resolution that would appear to put Assad's opponents, who appear to be developing a growing number of armed militias, on equal footing with the regime. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia had asked for language demanding the "Syrian opposition must distance themselves from resistance groups using acts of violence," but was turned down, in explaining his country's veto.
The vetoes extracted an angry, almost scornful response from the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. "The United States is disgusted that a couple of members of this council have stopped us from fulfilling (our) purpose here," she said. She complained that Russia continues to deliver weapons to Assad (one of the country's most reliable international arms customers), charged that since Friday "the Syrian govt has waged an intensified, and especially horrific assault on Homs," and as much as said that Russia and China support "tyranny."
"A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant," she said. "Further bloodshed... will be on their hands."
Pakistani Ambassador Abdullah Haroon, the most gifted orator in the room with a stentorian delivery reminiscent of Churchill, said the veto reminded him of "Pontius Pilate washing his hands and saying 'I have nothing to do with this,'" when Jesus was sentenced to death.
Syria's Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, meanwhile accused those of voting for the resolution of "selling their souls to the devil."
All of that made for a dramatic hour or so at the UN. But with no likelihood of new and decisive action on Syria's blossoming war. The Arab League still has a plan on the table calling for Assad to step down and a government of "national unity" to be formed. The US and Europe are wielding the stick of financial sanctions. But neither Assad nor his political base in the country's minority Alawite sect, which has enjoyed privilege and protection since Assad's father and predecessor Hafez took power in 1971, have shown any signs of budging.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters in Germany before the vote was taken, said "the endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war." She said the international community should urge Assad's opponents to pursue their demands "peacefully" and stressed that military intervention has been ruled out.
But with the daily assaults on both unarmed political activists and members of the self-styled Free Syrian Army, composed of defectors from Assad's military, the opposition seeking a path of peace seems unlikely. Torture and disappearances of activists continue. And the Assad family has faced down uprisings with brutal effectiveness before. A few days ago was the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre, when that Syrian city was sacked and tens of thousands of its citizens murdered for supporting an uprising.
The elder Assad survived both that challenge and its repercussions. His son appears determined to do likewise.
It's hard to put a positive spin on the events of the past two days in Egypt. At least 73 soccer fans were killed in a post-match riot yesterday that incompetent police could not stop. Today, angry crowds of soccer enthusiasts and activists against continued military rule, took to the streets of Cairo.
What ensued was tear gas, rock throwing, and dozens of injuries around Tahrir Square. In the mid-evening, a group of angry protesters surrounded a central security truck and briefly sought to detain the officers inside before cooler heads prevailed. More turmoil in Egypt, still trying to forge a new path after decades of authoritarian rule and with an economy badly damaged by the upheaval of the past year, is certainly not a good thing.
But people who attended the protest said you only had to walk a few blocks to find calm Cairo streets and a night that feels much like any other. Though the passion and anger of the thousands in and around Tahrir is real, it hasn't come anywhere close to igniting a major conflagration -- at least not yet. And some good may yet come if Egypt's new crop of civilian politicians, recently seated in parliament, can capitalize on it to clip the military's wings.
Writing at the London Review of Books blog, Issandr El Amrani draws attention to the stunning security lapses ahead of the soccer match between the Masry and Ahli teams. Both teams have hardcore "ultras" supporters clubs, and a history of mutual enmity. Typically a match like that would see heavy security, with guards searching fans for weapons before allowing them into the stadium. No such searches were carried out yesterday, allowing a number of Masry supporters to bring in knives and clubs that were used in the violence after the final whistle.
Many Egyptians believe that this may have been deliberate: a piece of engineered chaos intended to convince the public that a strong guiding hand from the military is needed to keep the country secure. But even if that were the intent (and there is no evidence yet), it backfired. What everyone is talking about in Cairo today, from protesters to new members of parliament, is the stunning failure of the police and of the military that continues to rule Egypt.
Amrani writes that it may be nudging the Muslim Brotherhood, the new power in parliament, towards demanding faster presidential elections:
Until yesterday, the top concern in Cairo was the mounting tension between revolutionary protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) now controls 46 per cent of parliament and is in a position to negotiate – alone if it wants to – the terms by which the military will transfer power to civilians later this year. The protest movement wants an immediate handover of power, either to a senior judge as interim president, to parliament, or to a president to be elected as soon as possible – and certainly earlier than 15 June, the date the generals have set for a presidential election. The Brothers, along with the more hardline Salafi Islamists, were sticking with the military schedule, but what happened last night has changed that.
In a special session of parliament today, the idea of forming a government of national salvation was discussed. MPs, including those of the FJP, also want to sack the interior minister and interrogate the chief of intelligence. It is as yet unclear whether they have the power – legally or practically – to do this, and what it might mean for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But it is a first sign of confrontation between the Brothers and the SCAF, and is encouraging the Tahrir protesters to hold fast to their demand for accountability and civilian rule sooner rather than later.
The sooner the military is removed from politics, the better the chances Egypt will have of building a new form of governance where powers flow from civilian politicians empowered by the ballot box. SCAF has been in power for nearly a year and has ruled much like the military-backed regimes of the past half century. The longer SCAF remains, the more influence it will exert on the writing of a new constitution and resist civilian restraints on its powers.
So that's the good that may come out of this tragedy. And the protests could still yet swell. It's easy to dismiss the ultras as a rabble or thugs, but they are highly organized and have an ethos of pushing back against confrontation. (I've embedded a clip of an Ultra Ahlawy display of mourning for a killed member from last year at the bottom to get a sense of their level of organization). I also highly recommend this blog post, an apparent account by one of the Ahli supporters who attended the match in Port Said to get a feel for his group, and the security failures that left 73 people dead yesterday (but take it with a grain of salt; I haven't independently confirmed it's accurate, but it passes the smell test).
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What really happened in Port Said yesterday doesn't matter right now. But eventually, the reality of the events that culminated in 73 dead fans after a soccer match in the Egyptian city will matter a great deal.
How can these contradictory statements be true? Because today, no matter how banal the series of mistakes that led to the deaths after local team Masry surprisingly defeated Ahly, Egypt's biggest club, tens of thousands of angry citizens are on the streets, and they're blaming Egypt's military junta for the deaths.
In the forefront are the Ultras Ahlawy, the hardcore Ahly supporters group which many of Wednesday's victims belonged to. Many of them blame the military for what happened, insisting that it gave orders to cause or allow the carnage to take revenge on the ultras, who helped organize the barricades at Tahrir during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak last January and February and have participated in numerous street demonstrations against police brutality and the military since.
Could this be true? Maybe. There's no evidence for that position, however, and the likeliest answer is (as always) the simplest one. But the fact that many people are seized with the notion that there was a conspiracy here, and are acting out on it is a political reality that will have to be dealt with. Clashes broke out between protesters near Tahrir Square and riot police in the early evening in Cairo, with teargas volleys and rock-throwing in Tahrir.
Many on the scene say the situation could deteriorate further, with fury mixing with grief among the ultras who, after all, are accustomed to violent confrontations with the cops. One of Ahly's ultra fan groups issued a statement on its website calling for a "war to defend the revolution."
Battle of the camel
Today is the anniversary of what Egyptian's call "the battle of the camel," the day last year that close political allies of Mubarak dispatched a group of thugs to Tahrir Square, some riding camels and horses, to break heads and end the swelling popular challenge to his rule. Eleven revolutionaries were killed that day and the attack crystallized the fury of millions of Egyptians. In hindsight, there might have been some hope on Feb. 1, 2011, that Mubarak could hold on. But by the end of Feb. 2, his fate was written.
But a year on, a coterie of generals hand-picked by Mubarak remain in charge. Police brutality, which provided the initial spark for the revolution, when the arrest, torture, and murder of Khaled Said by police in Alexandria started the protest movement rolling, remains rampant. Though a new parliament has been elected in the freest vote in Egyptian memory, power remains in the hands of the military, and the will, desire, and ability of the Islamists who now dominate the body to rein in the security services remain unclear.
Could distrust spread to parliament?
It's clear that large numbers of Egyptians have no faith or trust in the military or the police, and as events unfold in the coming days, that distrust could spread to the nascent parliament. When protesters marched peacefully on parliament a few days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party is the dominant force in the legislature, dispatched its own cadres to confront them, and clashes ensued. The Brotherhood's first impulse was not only an authoritarian one, but one that relied on its own informal street power rather than on national institutions.
Contempt could easily spread to the new parliament if it isn't seen to fully and transparently investigate the events in Port Said. Whatever happens in the medium term, the symbolism of protesters – many regular activists have joined the supporters of Ahly and other football clubs protesting in Cairo – clashing with the security forces in Tahrir exactly as they did a year ago, is glaring. Egypt remains volatile, many popular demands remain unmet, and few steps have been taken to create public faith in discredited institutions from the police to the state-controlled media in the intervening months.
What happened yesterday? The evidence now is pointing to the same cocktail of calculation, callousness, and incompetence that usually accompanies soccer disasters. The calculation, from the hard core fans of the home team seeking to inflict a beating on the less numerous traveling fans. The callousness, from stadium management that locked a main gate and turned an escape tunnel into a death trap where many were trampled in a panic, among them a 14-year-old boy. The incompetence, from the riot police that had neither the training, the leadership, nor the will to take action.
That locked gate, probably due to a desire to keep fans from entering without paying, was the single biggest contributor to the death toll. After the soccer tragedies in Europe in the '70s and '80s, culminating in the Hillsborough disaster in which 97 Liverpool fans died in a crush in 1989, best practices for stadium and crowd management were updated and revised. The main takeaway? Penning people up or locking them in leads to death. The answer was to remove fencing, to widen pedestrian clog points – and to keep the gates open in case something bad happened.
Those are the easy fixes. The tough fix is the police force itself – a mix of untrained conscripts and career officers, used to extracting confessions by torture and cash from average folks. That battle will be one of years. We'll find out soon if the new members of parliament have the ability and the desire to wage it.
A soccer match between Masry and Ahly in the Egyptian city of Port Said ended in tragedy today, with at least 73 people killed in a melee that broke out after the final whistle. Given the context of Egypt's political transition, the story is liable to become about a lot more than the latest in the long list of violent incidents started by soccer hooligans.
Egypt's national soccer competition was suspended almost immediately after the violence for fear of a violent repeat. An emergency session of parliament has been called for tomorrow to discuss the tragedy.
The melee started with a pitch invasion following the 3-1 upset for Masry over Cairo-based Ahly, the Yankees or Manchester United (depending on your preferences) of Egyptian soccer. The footage from the end of the national broadcast of the match holds only the barest hint of the violence that was to come, with a few scuffles breaking out and Ahly's players running for their dressing room.
But the footage shows the clear presence of large numbers of riot police at the stadium -- standard for when Egypt's big clubs play, since many of them have bands of fanatic supporters who call themselves "Ultras" in the style of Italian soccer hooligans. Apparently, soon thereafter the security forces melted away or refused to intervene as the attacks broke out, killing at least 73 according to Egyptian state television.
“The security forces left us, they did not protect us," Mohamed Abou-Treika, a star player for Ahly, screamed over the phone from the visiting locker room, Al-Ahram reported. "One fan has just died in the dressing room in front of me."
Mr. Abou-Treika is one of the country's most prominent sports stars, and that dramatic phone call will probably be replayed for days in Arab language satellite TV. Stories like that have many Egyptians speculating wildly that the military is responsible. Activists against the military junta in particular are wondering if the violence was engineered to try to frighten the general public into backing a law-and-order military rule.
There is of course no evidence for that. But in a situation as fluid as Egypt's, misplaced distrust can have just as much political impact as the real thing. And many big political decisions remain. Though a new parliament has sat, presidential elections to replace the generals currently ruling Egypt have not yet taken place, nor have the precise details of how Egypt's old constitution will be rewritten been determined.
And whatever solidarity there once was between political factions built on shared distaste for the Mubarak dictatorship has evaporated under the weight of the country's new political realities. The new parliament is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who used its own activists to corral liberal protesters seeking to march on parliament yesterday, many of whom the younger brothers had made common cause with at the start of last year.
The tragedy itself will underscore the international narrative of Egypt having become a much more dangerous and unpredictable place than it once was -- however fair that assessment might be. Foreign investment evaporated last year, and there's little hope for a change soon. The soccer violence happened the day after 25 kidnapped Chinese workers were released on the Sinai peninsula. The Chinese worked at an Egyptian military-owned cement plant there, and were kidnapped by local Bedouin seeking the release of a tribesmen in state custody.
Interesting will be the response of the Ultras Ahlawy, Ahly's hard-core supporters group. They and the supporters' clubs from a few other teams were deeply involved in organizing defenses at Tahrir Square during the uprising against Mubarak -- bringing organization, and know-how in dealing with the country's riot police. Though football fans, they seem to take as much delight in taunting and jeering at the police as they do in celebrating goals.
The Ultras occasionally flexed their muscles on the streets of Cairo since the revolutoin. The killing of an Ahly supporter by police after a match in September led to a mass show of strength by the Ultras, who marched on the Israeli embassy venting their fury and sacked the place.