Archive for the ‘The Arab Spring’ Category

This article was first published in New Matilda on 23/08/11, with revisions: http://bit.ly/AfterGaddafi

The regime of Colonel Muammur Gaddafi is in a state of near total atrophy. Rebel forces, pushing east from the recently captured town of Zawiya, have now entered Tripoli in force. They claim to have captured eighty percent of the city already, including the highly symbolic Green Square, and one of the largest military bases, Mais, where they freed nearly 5000 people and opened the armoury to rebel supporters. Rebel forces are now closing in on Tripoli on all fronts, with reports of troops arriving by boat as well.

Gaddafi has reiterated his claim that he will fight “to the last drop of blood”, yet rumours abound of his intended flight to Tunisia. His spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed that “we have thousands of professional soldiers and thousands of volunteers protecting the city.” Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who has been indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, has been captured and detained. There have also been reports that Gaddafi’s eldest son, Mohammad, has surrendered along with the presidential guard, though fighting continues at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. (The two preceding reports were both later disproved). Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown; in recent months he has been sleeping in hospitals and hotels to avoid air-raids. Whether Colonel Gaddafi decides to stay or flee and whether his loyalist forces put up a staunch defence will determine how this destructive and deadly civil war is concluded.

World leaders have intensified their calls for Gaddafi to step down and avoid further bloodshed. In a statement released yesterday, Nato urged those still fighting for Gaddafi’s regime to lay down their arms. Despite real concerns about the possibility of ongoing urban warfare in Tripoli and fighting elsewhere in Libya, the real question now is what happens after Gaddafi. What sort of process will emerge and who will the major players be?

In recent weeks in particular, the rebels and their representative body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), have come under much greater scrutiny as commentators turn their attention to post-Gaddafi Libya. The NTC’s ability to control the chaos that will continue to prevail for some time after Gaddafi’s removal is as yet untested. They are currently without a cabinet, after NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil sacked the last one for its failure to investigate adequately the murder of General Younes. Divisions within the NTC have stymied attempts to form a new cabinet and the NTC’s legitimacy as a representative body has suffered. The rebels in Misrata, who have been highly critical both of Jalil and the NTC’s designated army commanders, stated that they have not been taking orders from the NTC. Indeed, it is the rebels in the west and not those based in Benghazi who so recently broke the stalemate, captured Zlitan, Garyan and Zawiya and advanced on Tripoli. There are certainly no guarantees that those western rebels will be willing to accept directions from Jalil and his associates.

Nato has announced its readiness to work with the NTC to ensure that “the transition is smooth and inclusive, that the country stays united, and that the future is founded on reconciliation and respect for human rights.” Despite its relatively high regard amongst those opposed to Gaddafi, Nato’s ongoing presence in Libya may, in the long term, serve to create tension and resentment and leave the door open to further accusations of imperialism. As soon as the fighting stops, they will do well to disengage militarily to avoid further complicating what will be a very difficult transition to a new constitution and government.

The recent assassination of rebel general Younes also raised significant concerns about the possible influence of Islamic extremists within the NTC, though most commentators agree that this influence has been exaggerated and overplayed. Inevitably there will be an Islamic element within the political equation. There are already strict Muslims in the NTC, though this should be no more alarming than the presence of devout Christians in the United States government. They are not advocating an Islamic state, but a secular one.

The chances of an Islamic state emerging in Libya are slim. For all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses under the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya has long maintained a relatively liberal attitude toward personal freedoms. This is especially noticeable with regard to the situation of women. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women not only dress in western-style clothing, but have been very active and visible in the workplace. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984. The people of Libya, though denied freedom of speech, especially in the realm of politics, are well-educated and have good long-term employment prospects should the political and economic situation stabilise. It is not a country known for Islamic conservatism and it is unlikely that the revolutionary zeal which began as a demand for democracy, would transform into religious zeal, though this is by no means impossible.

It needs to be remembered that the NTC is merely a transitional body. Despite significant difficulties, it has managed to present a surprisingly united front throughout the conflict. It must soon look to hand over its responsibilities to a more broadly representative body tasked with the implementation of a constitutional process. How successfully this can achieved will hinge on a number of factors, such as whether or not there will be an ongoing insurrection and whether or not reprisals will continue between different groups. Much is often made of tribal rivalries in Libya and loyalties in Libya, as is indeed the case throughout the African polity, yet the tribes have managed to work together in the past and sustained an overarching Libyan national identity. No doubt there will be disputes and discontent, sporadic clashes and political violence, but whether or not such possible tensions will prevent the process of building a new Libya from going forward is yet to be seen.

Despite the destructive nature of the conflict, much of Libya’s oil infrastructure has been unharmed. This will certainly facilitate a more rapid economic recovery, though it will likely be several months before sufficient social and economic stability return to allow full production. The transitional government in Libya will also face difficult decisions and temptations with regard to Gaddafi regime assets and funds likely to come into their hands. Nato’s intervention might ostensibly have been on humanitarian grounds, yet many voices have been critical of its member nations’ long-term ambitions with regard to Libya’s oil reserves.

Perhaps the most immediate concern for the present and in post-Gaddafi Libya will be ensuring the supply of basic services and food. Almost a million people have been displaced by this conflict, many of whom will soon begin to return home. These people will need water, electricity, food and, in many cases, housing. Libya’s wealth should be sufficient to cater for this, yet oversight and distribution must be rapid and efficient. There will also be questions over the detention and repatriation of the many foreign mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi. Whether their treatment is humane, along with that of Gaddafi’s political supporters, should be a serious concern for the international community.

This is indeed the end of the game for Gaddafi, but as in computer games, the boss fight is often the toughest. If he accepts defeat and surrenders or goes into exile, then hundreds of lives might be saved, just as thousands of others might have been saved had he not declared war on his people in the first place. After 42 years in control of Libya, Gaddafi must act fast to stop any further loss of life, for which he will remain, ultimately responsible.

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The assassination on Thursday, July 27, of top rebel general Abdel Fattah Younes, has caused considerable consternation about the integrity of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the rebel movement in Libya as a whole.

Initial reports suggested that the assassination was carried out by Islamists loyal to Gaddafi, who accosted the general after he was recalled to Benghazi to discuss the situation at the front line. This rumour was denied by the NTC’s leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who on August 1 issued a statement to the effect that a warrant had been issued for General Younes’ arrest by his deputy Ali Essawi, on grounds of suspicion about possible links with Gaddafi loyalists. Initially there was no mention of a warrant. It was after Younes’ release last Thursday that he and two aides were gunned down, allegedly, by two of the men assigned to escort him.

According to the account of a rebel figure who spoke anonymously to AFP, one of the men who shot Younes shouted that he was a traitor who had killed their father in Derna. He also claimed that the men were members of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, a claim later rejected when the blame was transferred to the al-Nidaa Brigade. Despite Jalil’s assertion that the assassins were not Islamists, suspicion still hangs over a group of men from the religiously conservative town of Derna.

Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam recently told the New York Times that he was seeking ties with Islamists in the east to turn them against their more liberal allies amongst the rebels. Ali Sallabi, a senior rebel figure, confirmed that there had been dialogue with Gaddafi’s son, but that any claim of a split amongst the rebels was baseless. “It’s a lie that seeks to create a crack in the national accord,” Sallabi said. He went on to claim that the dialogue has always hinged on three points: “Gaddafi and his sons must leave Libya, the capital must be protected from destruction and the blood of Libyans must be spared.”

With so many military and political figures having defected from Gaddafi’s regime to the rebels, there have long been questions about the degree of dialogue between the NTC and Gaddafi’s regime. Younes himself was a very high profile defection when he joined the rebellion in February, having long been a close ally of Gaddafi’s and having served as interior minister in his government. He was initially given command of the rebel forces, yet, unable to shake the taint of his association with Gaddafi, despite a four million dollar bounty on his head, he was later moved to Chief of Staff.

Some commentators have downplayed the importance of Younes to the rebel movement, pointing out that it has never relied upon a single charismatic figure to sustain its momentum. Yet the rebels have not only lost a significant military leader, they have also turned violently inwards in an attempt to root out suspected fifth-columnists. The rebel forces and vigilante groups, particularly the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, have, from the start, been arbitrarily arresting, imprisoning and murdering suspected Gaddafi supporters, yet the ferocity has intensified in the wake of Younes’ killing.

On Sunday, July 31, several suspected Gaddafi loyalists were killed and at least 63 arrested, following a battle lasting several hours at the stronghold of the al-Nidaa brigade, in the city of Benghazi. Ismail al-Salabi, the military leader of the rebel faction, February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the de-facto internal security force in Benghazi, said the operation was “100 per cent successful”. He went on to claim that they had not only found explosives and military equipment with which they intended to carry out terrorist attacks in Benghazi, but also documents clearly linking the al-Nidaa Brigade to Gaddafi.

With so much paranoia in the rebel camp, it is difficult to confirm such claims, let alone know who to believe. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is known to contain members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), renowned for their complete distrust of anyone linked to Gaddafi, and before the al-Nidaa Brigade were blamed for Younes’ killing, suspicion rested on them. The NTC has established an investigative committee to look into the assassination, yet just how free and objective this will be is anyone’s guess.

There are thus many legitimate concerns about the arbitrary justice being applied to suspected Gaddafi loyalists. Ultimately the rebel forces and the NTC must be held to account for their methods and practices and foreign governments must remain vigilant to human rights abuses. Just how much influence the military brigades have on the NTC’s political decisions is also a matter of significant concern.

On the 30th of July, the head of the NTC, Mustafa Jalil, announced a clampdown on these informal groups.

“The time has come to disband these brigades”, said Jalil. “Anybody who refuses to take part in this decree will be tried with the full measure of the law.”

The ultimatum includes an offer to join the rebel armed forces on the front-line or be incorporated into the Benghazi security forces, otherwise, to lay down their arms. In recent months a better trained, equipped, uniformed and hierarchical armed forces has emerged, allowing the rebels to co-ordinate their troops and materiel in a more professional manner, with effective command and communications structures. The presence of the brigades has increasingly become a liability, both militarily and politically.

This is clearly a testing time for the rebels, whose recent gains in western Libya suffered a blow with the loss of the village of Al-Jawsh at the foot of the Nafusa Mountains and whose attempts to recapture the key eastern oil town of Brega have proven slow, despite sending a considerable army of men and equipment to the purpose. Last Tuesday the rebel forces, who had advanced into the suburbs of Zlitan, a key town on the approach to Tripoli, suffered a fierce counter-attack from well equipped and heavily armed pro-Gaddafi forces. Having been given covert assurances that they would be welcomed in the town, the rebels soon suspected they had been lured into a trap. Yet, despite repeated fierce attacks from Gaddafi forces, the rebels have shored up their positions, reinforced their troops significantly, brought up more equipment and held their lines. The fighting continues daily. As Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons said, “would you believe this is Ramadan?”

Irrespective of these difficulties, most commentators agree that the broader strategic, tactical and political momentum is firmly on the side of the NTC. At a meeting in Turkey on July 15, the United States and Turkey joined no less than thirty other nations in recognising the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government. Last Monday, France released US $259 million dollars of frozen funds to the NTC. NATO’s continued airstrikes have been effective in degrading Gaddafi’s forces, along with his command and control infrastructure in and around the capital, Tripoli. Despite widespread and legitimate concerns about “collateral damage” from NATO’s air campaign, there seems little inclination on behalf of the nations involved to scale back the campaign until it has achieved its purpose, which, despite protestations otherwise under the guise of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces, seems to be, quite unambiguously, regime change.

In the meantime, we must not forget the humanitarian crisis that has emerged. As of 14 June, the number of Libyan refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia and another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Casualties, both military and civilian, are now estimated at more than 12000 people.

What will happen in coming weeks is anyone’s guess. There remains the possibility of an internal coup as the pressure mounts on Gaddafi, yet for now he appears secure, if threatened and paranoid, in the capital of his shrinking fiefdom. There seems little likelihood of a political solution without Gaddafi’s removal, and hence the increasingly deadly and costly conflict is likely to continue for some time. Soon, no doubt, there will be further pressure on the rebels, particularly insofar as scrutiny of their future intentions and capabilities are concerned. If they are ultimately successful in this conflict, many further questions will be asked as to what process will emerge for the construction of a new Libya.


This article was first published in New Matilda on 08/08/11:




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I have no idea how I would react if war came to my own city. Perhaps this is because in a place like Sydney, Australia, it is, at least in the current geopolitical situation, almost entirely unimaginable. Given the choice of fleeing or fighting against an oppressive government willing to use force and violence to kill protestors, I’m not sure whether I’d stay and fight or get on a boat to New Zealand.

In recent months, millions of people in Libya, and indeed, in other countries in the region, have been forced to make this difficult choice of whether to stay and fight or flee and seek refuge elsewhere. Despite the possibility of armed conflict never having been so remote as it is in a country like Australia, I suspect that many of these people never really imagined being faced with such a choice. It is all very well to talk tough at times, but when faced with a genuine and potentially lethal threat, when confronted by the awful reality of bullets, bombs and rockets, many people understandably lose their nerve. Just as, by the same token, many people find an inner strength and defiance in the face of abject fear; enough to take up arms and risk everything.

I wonder at times if being an atheist colours my thinking on this matter. This life is all I have and I have no desire to put myself in harm’s way. Yes, I still have ideals and strong beliefs in human rights and human dignity, in freedom and justice, but I don’t see the point of fighting to achieve something I won’t be there to enjoy, unless, of course, by “fighting”, we mean taking some form of democratic action, and not picking up a weapon. I’d fight in the courts, protest on the streets, blog, whine and share information on the internet, but if bombs, rockets and bullets are involved, I cannot honestly say how I would respond. It would be foolish and gung-ho to assume I’d act like a “hero”.

Perhaps if I believed in an afterlife the idea of dying for a cause might seem more palatable, yet even then, there are enough pleasures in this life that I have yet to explore, and, having no offspring, I would leave next to nothing behind. It would seem foolish to put all one’s eggs in one basket. In truth, I don’t think I’m much of a candidate for martyrdom.

With very rare exception, I don’t honestly believe anyone wants to die. Suicide, despite being alarmingly common, effects a very small percentage of the population, and many of those who do commit suicide are shown to have done it as a cry for help; in the hope that people would step in and their life might improve. In conflict zones, there are certainly those who would be martyrs, but only a very small number of actual suicide bombers and fighters. Some fighters become so enraged with their enemy, either through moral offence or personal loss, that they lose their sense of self-preservation and no longer care for their own personal safety, yet again, this accounts for a relatively small proportion of people involved in combat. The vast bulk of soldiers hope to return home, they fight to stay alive, they fight so they can spend time with their loved ones, and, whatever the politics of the situation, whatever the bigger goals, when engaged in a skirmish, they fight to protect themselves and their comrades in arms. And, indeed, many lose their nerve and find they cannot fight; they take cover, or retreat from the onslaught. And, really, who can blame them, faced as they are with lethal force?

I have, over the last few months, developed a deep admiration for the rebel fighters in Libya, and especially for those who have withstood the siege of Misurata, Libya’s third largest city. A not insignificant number of rebel fighters have had some previous military training, through national service or as defecting soldiers, yet the bulk of the fighters are regular citizens who have been willing to risk everything, either through a desire to overthrow Gaddafi, or simply self-preservation.

The conflict came to Misurata in February when protesters in the city, inspired by events in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets and were arrested by security forces. Larger protests followed the initial arrests, during which security forces fired upon the protesters. These events erupted into an open conflict between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces, and by the 23rd of February, the rebels had driven Gaddafi’s forces from the city.

What followed was a long three months of bitter fighting over the city and its important assets, such as a military airbase and Misurata’s new airport. In early March, Gaddafi’s forces attempted to retake the city, sending in soldiers and tanks, which penetrated as far as the city centre. The people of Misurata had little choice but to use whatever they could to defend themselves against the Libyan Army’s repeated assaults. They were subjected to rocket and mortar attacks, forced to engage in bitter street fighting, shelled by artillery and fired upon by tanks and other armoured vehicles, and shot by snipers arrayed on the top of buildings around the city centre.

The pro-Gaddafi forces, whilst initially making significant gains, were heavily pressed by the rebels in the city, especially once NATO began to conduct airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces in and around the city. The people of Misurata showed great resolve, not only in taking up arms to defend themselves, but also in finding ingenious ways to prevent tanks from entering the city centre, making roadblocks of containers from the shipping port by filling them with sand. They used a combination of captured and home-made weapons with which to fight. The estimates of dead and wounded vary significantly, but somewhere between 400 and 700 rebels and civilians died during the fighting, with the city’s medical committee stating that almost 4000 had been wounded.

Irrespective of the final figures for this conflict, the simple fact is that none of these deaths or injuries ought to have occurred. Gaddafi’s response to his people’s desire for greater political freedom was to shoot them in the streets. Rather than acknowledging this desire for change and overseeing a process of reform or transition, his response was violent oppression. Once the firing starts, unless the people are so overwhelmed by force as to be cowed, there is little chance of it stopping in a hurry. Events elsewhere in Libya made this nigh impossible, with rebel forces active in the east and in the Nafusa mountain region, the people of Misurata were sustained not only by fear of reprisals should the city be recaptured by Gaddafi, but also out of hope for a desperate victory. It was the imminent assault on Benghazi, and the siege of Misurata primarily, which influenced the United Nations Security Council to vote in favour of military intervention.

The Libyan uprising, or civil war if you will, has had a dreadful impact on the lives of Libyan civilians. Thousands of people, especially young men, have been killed or wounded throughout the course of the conflict. Latest figures suggest a total of roughly 11000 casualties since the fighting began in February. None of these deaths need have occurred, but faced by a government willing to murder its own people in their homes and streets, a government that has long oppressed, surveilled, tortured, raped and brutalised its people, it is hardly surprising that so many people fled or took arms against the government.

The refugee crisis brought about during this conflict is by no means insignificant. As of 14 June, the number of refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia, with another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Whilst the conflict has the potential to continue for some time longer, the momentum seems, slowly but surely, to be with the rebels.

For the people of Misurata, the fight goes on. Despite having driven Gaddafi’s forces out of the city and some distance from its surrounds and the capture of the airport and attached military base, the city has still been subject to rocket and mortar attacks. Their safety is by no means assured, though the least likely scenario would be a return to control by Gaddafi’s forces at this stage. One thing is certain, however, that the people of Misurata have shown extraordinary resourcefulness and courage in the fact of brutality. For that they have my admiration. I hope I never have to endure a military conflict, nor find myself faced with the choice to fight or flee. It must be an awful decision to have to make.

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A recent spate of defections by high-ranking military personnel from the Libyan armed forces might mark the beginning of the final phase of the Libyan uprising. On Monday, at a press conference in Italy, five generals, two colonels and a major announced they were part of a larger cohort numbering up to 120 military officials and soldiers who have recently defected from Gaddafi’s forces.

“What is happening to our people has frightened us,” said one of the officers, General Oun Ali Oun. “There is a lot of killing, genocide … violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he (Gaddafi) asked us to do.”

The defections come at a time when, despite questions over the cost and duration of the Nato intervention in Libya, the major players in the enforcement, Britain, France and the US, have vowed to step up the pressure, psychologically, diplomatically and militarily.

In Britain and France in particular, the idea is that more intensive strikes, including the introduction of ground attack Apache helicopters, the use of 2000 pound Paveway III bunker-busting bombs, regular day-time air-raids and, it would appear, covertly deployed military co-ordinators on the ground, will bring about a more swift conclusion to the conflict.

Speaking after a meeting with British PM David Cameron, during his six-day European tour, President Obama stated: “I believe that we have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course we’re on, he will step down. Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we’re able to wear down the regime forces.”

Liam Fox, the British defence secretary, has said it is now “inevitable” that Gaddafi will go, though no one is willing to offer a deadline or timeframe.

There certainly appears to have been significant progress in destabilising and degrading both the Libyan armed forces and the regime in recent weeks. One officer at the press conference, General Salah Giuma Yahmed, said Gaddafi’s army was becoming weaker day by day, and that it was now reduced to a mere 20 per cent of its original capability.

“Gaddafi’s days are numbered,” said Yahmed.

Such reports are difficult to confirm, but the results on the ground speak for themselves. In the last three weeks, the rebel forces, backed by more targeted and intensive Nato airstrikes, have at last succeeded in lifting the deadly two and a half month siege of Libya’s third-largest city, Misurata. After long and bitter street fighting that saw Gaddafi’s forces, including heavy armour, punch right into the city centre, leaving much of the city wrecked, with hundreds, possibly thousands dead, the rebel victory has greatly boosted morale in their ragtag, yet increasingly well-coordinated forces. In the second week of May, after devastating Nato raids which destroyed heavy armour and ammunition dumps, the rebels captured the strategically important Misurata airport and accompanying air-force base, used by Gaddafi’s forces as a platform from which to shell the city indiscriminately. They have since driven Gaddafi’s troops more than thirty-five kilometres from the city limits, yet the situation at the front line remains fluid, with the Libyan army continuing to shell the western outskirts of the city with artillery, rocket and mortar attacks.

In the mountains, south of Tripoli, in western Libya, the rebel-held towns have been successful in repelling successive waves of attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. Perched upon a high plateau above a wide flat plain, the rebels in the mountains have made full use of their terrain advantage, spotting approaching troops well before their arrival. Outgunned and under-equipped, they have used whatever limited resources they have to knock out Gaddafi’s armour and transport vehicles on approach. In towns like Zintan, subjected to rocket attacks and air-strikes early in the uprising, there is a new sense of optimism that they have seen the worst of the fighting already.

Yet, despite these gains and more than two months of bombing by Nato, the rebels have been unable to advance west of Misrata or west of Brega, some 300 miles to the east and the capital, Tripoli, remains firmly in Gaddafi’s hands.

At the outset of the conflict, many officers privately expressed reluctance to defect, largely for fear of reprisals against their families. It was hoped that intervention would bring rapid capitulation from an army unwilling to fight against its own people, but Gaddafi’s threats, cash bonuses and, no doubt, his much-vaunted charisma, induced many thousands of soldiers to stay loyal. The air campaign, growing diplomatic pressure, the increased recognition of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), the revelation of atrocities, and, indeed, Gaddafi’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war-crimes, alongside his son, Saif and intelligence chief, all appear to have had a cumulative effect on both the morale and capability of the Libyan army.

The latest round of defections occurred during the second visit to Tripoli of South African President Jacob Zuma, whom, it was initially believed, would attempt to negotiate an exit strategy for Gaddafi. Britain has applied considerable pressure on Zuma and the African Union to press Gaddafi to step down, but both Zuma and the AU have focussed instead on ceasefire proposals. Zuma’s aides stated that his visit was primarily about humanitarian concerns.

Another ceasefire proposal was sent to the Spanish government by Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, yet, apart from widespread distrust amongst Nato and EU nations of such proposals, the rebels have unequivocally rejected any suggested ceasefires, wanting to see Gaddafi tried for crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Libya, Italy has further thrown its weight behind the NTC by offering aid to the tune of 100 million Euros and opening a consulate in Benghazi. They have rejected the suggestion that further support for and legitimatising of the NTC might lead to a partition of the country, offering repeated assurances that this outcome is neither likely nor desirable. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said on Tuesday that the Gaddafi regime is “finished.”

“He must leave office, he must leave the country,” said Frattini, during a joint news conference with Ali al-Essawi, the foreign affairs representative of the NTC.

Last Friday G8 leaders from Italy, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, the United States and Russia called for Gaddafi to step down. The loss of Russian support, or even relative neutrality, is a significant diplomatic blow for Gaddafi as the pressure against him mounts. On Monday, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay, condemned the actions of the Libyan and Syrian governments against their people.

“The brutality and magnitude of measures taken by the governments in Libya and now Syria have been particularly shocking in their outright disregard for basic human rights,” he said.

In Turkey this week, more than 100 tribal leaders from Libya met with members of the NTC in an attempt to unite the various tribes of Libya against Gaddafi. They called for an end to the violence and the departure of Gaddafi and his sons. Gaddafi has used bribes, persuasion and at times, brutal force against the various tribes of Libya in an attempt to obtain or maintain their loyalty, or at least, compliance, over the last forty odd years of his rule.

Of late, it has been reported that Colonel Gaddafi has been spending his nights moving between hospitals in Tripoli, deeply paranoid and concerned for his safety in the face of Nato bombing raids. Unless an exit strategy is offered, perhaps including immunity from persecution, there seems little hope for him now but to bunker down like an Afghan warlord and try to weather the storm. His demise seems increasingly inevitable, yet exactly when it will come is anyone’s guess.

This article was first published in New Matilda on 01/06/11:


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The response to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East has been varied to say the least. Initially underestimating the scale of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, many governments favoured a pro status quo approach for the sake of political, strategic and economic stability, which slowly, then more rapidly moved towards support for regime change. In the case of Libya, there was little disagreement amongst the international community that Gaddafi’s actions were worthy of condemnation, and instead the debate centred around how strong the response should be and whether or not some form of intervention was necessary. Why, however, in the wake of ongoing deadly crackdowns against protesters in Bahrain, who have equally compelling reasons to demand regime change, has the international response been so muted?

The protests in Bahrain, led by Shia parties and activists demanding more representative government and greater equality, which began in earnest on the 14th of February across Bahrain caused immediate alarm when heavy-handed policing led first to the death of a protester and then a further death at the funeral which followed. The situation changed dramatically in tone after the February 17 crackdown on protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, which left 6 people dead and hundreds injured. Undaunted, protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout where they continued their sit in, refusing to accept offers of dialogue and calling now for the end of the monarchy.

On March 14 hundreds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops and police, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrived in Bahrain at the government’s request. The following day a state of emergency was declared and, on the 16th of March, Bahraini security forces again drove protesters from the symbolic Pearl Roundabout and from surrounding streets. Public gatherings and marches were subsequently banned. The Salmaniya hospital, where most of the dead and injured protesters had been taken, was raided, medical staff were arrested, and the tents set up by protesters were also removed.

On the 18th of March the Pearl Monument was torn down by the government in an attempt to deny the protesters what had become their rallying symbol. Concerned about violent repression, the opposition parties called off further protests for fear of more deaths. Last Friday, a call to action via independent protesters through Facebook and Twitter drew large crowds in towns across Bahrain, but the protests were dispersed by a heavy security presence.

In total, at least twenty people have been killed, including two policemen, and hundreds, possibly thousands injured during a month of heavy-handed security crackdowns. The security response has included house raids and arrests of human rights activists, dissidents and members of opposition parties on charges of sedition, murder and contact with foreign states. Perhaps the most shocking image to come from this is a video showing protesters marching towards security forces holding flags and chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” being gunned down in cold blood. One man appears to have been killed instantly by a shot to the head. http://bit.ly/gcjinZ

Bahrain is a society that is significantly segregated along sectarian lines. The ruling Al Khalifa family is part of the Sunni Muslim minority, who constitute roughly 35 percent of the population. Bahraini Shias are heavily discriminated against in politics, employment and services. Yet, unlike Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are not largely driven by poverty, but by inequality and lack of representation. Unemployment stands at close to 20%, but this is largely amongst the Shia population.

The Al Khalifa family have been refusing more participatory government since the 1950s. Significant constitutional reforms were again promised in the 1970s and then abandoned. King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999, promised reforms in 2002, but the new constitution which did emerge gave considerable new powers to the Consultative Council of Bahrain, which is handpicked by the king and has powers of veto over the lower house. Despite the largest opposition party holding 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahraini parliament, this does not translate into legislative power. Protesters have avoided taking a sectarian stance and have instead stressed the need for equality and unity, to little effect.

The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has held his position since 1971. In recent weeks, opposition Shia parties have opted to boycott parliament in support of the popular protests. The crackdowns have been seen as a victory for hard-liners in the regime.

It is for these reasons that the opposition groups, led by Wefaq, have repeatedly rejected offers of dialogue and instead demanded the establishment either of a republic or constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the increasingly violent crackdowns, however, they have eased their demands that the royal family step aside from politics altogether, and have shown some willingness to engage in negotiations.

What makes the situation of the protesters in Bahrain so difficult is that there is next to no chance of either the security forces or military siding with them. The Al Khalifa regime has for some years now been recruiting exclusively Sunni personnel, both from within Bahrain and also from other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, including Iraqis formerly employed under Saddam Hussein. Most of the Pakistani recruits speak neither Arabic nor the local dialect and are seen by the Shia majority as hated mercenaries. The foreign recruits are given housing and citizenship, creating further resentment amongst the local Shia majority. Often, the recruits are hardline Sunni fundamentalists with strongly anti-Shiite sentiments.

“Our army are not really native Bahrainis,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwedaye, a Bahraini activist, speaking to Al Jazeera. “They are all brought over from different countries. So their loyalty is not really to the country. The army is fully controlled by the king himself and his agenda is the agenda which has to be followed.”


The exact figures are kept secret, but the policy is part of a broader attempt to shift the demographics in favour of the Sunni minority, who constitute just 35% of the population.

In a country with such a clear sectarian divide, which has until now, managed to avoid much sectarian violence and unrest, there is grave potential for Shia-Sunni relations to worsen dramatically. This will not only have domestic consequences, but regional consequences as well. Some analysts are concerned that should the situation drag on, it will lead to greater radicalisation of Bahrainis and might potentially result in civil war. Bahrain may be small geographically and population-wise, but then so is Gaza and the impact of events there cannot be downplayed. Iran and Syria, who already support and arm Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon for example, may seek to do so in Bahrain as well. Iran has made it clear that it regards the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain as an “occupation”, making full use of the circumstances to promote further its regional leadership amongst Shias. Iran has demanded the removal of GCC troops and recalled its ambassador. Bahrain has expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires, whilst Iran has ordered out a Bahrainian diplomat.

The United States finds itself in a bind because the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. All Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had to say after the brutal crackdown on March 16 was that Bahrain and the GCC were “on the wrong track.” The United States seems more concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf state than the implementation of reforms. Even with the very muted pressure the Obama administration has placed on Bahrain, its relations with Saudi Arabia have become increasingly strained. The Saudis have several times warned both Iran and the United States not to interfere in Bahraini affairs.

It is not merely the United States who have taken a soft approach on Bahrain, but response of the international community has been decidedly cautious. Despite expressions of outrage, with the exception of Iran, little real pressure has been applied. After a recent fact-finding visit to Bahrain, Robert Cooper, a special advisor to EU foreign Policy chief Baroness Ashton was defensive of the Bahraini security forces saying “accidents happen.” He stated that “the exceptional nature of recent events is part of the problem, because… it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence.” Despite some strong criticism of his comments by EU colleagues, there seems little willingness to consider the application of greater diplomatic pressure.

The United Nations has made clear its displeasure at the situation in Bahrain, and in Manama in particular, but again there seems little appetite for stronger measures. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concerns about “arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces.” She described it as “shocking and illegal conduct.” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians.”


The Middle East has long been a strategic balancing act for the United States and the international community at large and it seems that in the case of Bahrain, the old paradigm still stands. The overriding concern is to maintain economic and strategic stability. The US will be reluctant to damage further its standing with Saudi Arabia, and has little room to move because of its naval base. The EU seems reluctant to engage with the situation and whilst the UN has used strong language, it has done little else. It begs the question as to what ultimately caused the world to recognise the need for change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Because it was morally right, because regime change had become inexorable and thus inevitable, or was it out of concern to garner positive relations with the newly emerging leadership? It seems that in Bahrain, strategic and economic concerns have outweighed any moral imperative to pressure the regime to make significant reforms. What happens next is likely to happen internally, though external mediation is still a possibility. A new offer by Kuwait to mediate in talks with the regime has been welcomed by Wefaq, but it remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa regime is willing to consider reform. If the government is not genuine about dialogue and the unrest continues, there will likely be regional implications that may force an unwanted shift in the world’s relationship to Bahrain.


This article was first published in New Matilda on 28/03/11:




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On Monday, in scenes reminiscent of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974, protesters on the streets in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, handed out flowers to soldiers and posed with them to have their photographs taken. Earlier that day, Major-General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the first armoured division and head of the north-west military zone, had declared his support for the protestors in the wake of Friday’s crackdown by the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which left at least 52 people dead. Four other high-ranking military officers have also announced their support for the protesters in recent days and the soldiers, along with tanks and armoured vehicles, have now been deployed by Mohsen on the streets of the capital to protect the protesters.

The defence minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed claimed that despite these defections the president still had the support of the army, yet the situation is extremely volatile with support for the embattled president rapidly eroding across the country. The defecting soldiers join more than 15 foreign ambassadors, including the ambassador to the United Nations, China, Egypt and Germany who have resigned in recent days over the heavy-handed security crackdowns. President Saleh, who has offered a considerable number of concessions in the last few weeks, including the offer of a new constitution, has declared a 30-day state of emergency, sacked his entire cabinet and announced that he is willing to step down at the end of the year. Yet the protesters will accept nothing other than his immediate resignation, having seen many broken promised in the past.

Despite the mounting pressure against him, President Saleh still retains strong support in certain sectors of Yemeni society and the military. As the wave of protest and revolution spread across the Middle East, his supporters were quick to seize the initiative and, realising its symbolic significance in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, occupied Tahrir Square in the capital Sanaa, setting up camp before protesters could claim the site. Consequently, the protesters set up their own camp in Taghyeer Square, out the front of Sanaa University. The name means “change.” Since establishing themselves there, they have been subject to numerous deadly attacks by security forces and plainclothes thugs.

Many both inside and outside of Yemen believe the president is finished. The editor-in-chief of Yemen Post, Hakim Al Masmari, speaking to Al Jazeera said that “For Ali Mohsen to announce this, it is a clear sign to president Saleh that the game is over and that he must step down now.” Ali Mohsen was described, in a 2005 US Diplomatic cable, as “Saleh’s iron fist.” He is said to control over 50% of the country’s military assets and has long been seen as the second most powerful man in Yemen. It is for this reason that, despite his assertion of support, he is unlikely to be trusted by the protesters.

“Ali Mohsen Saleh will not be accepted by the youth,” said Masmari, “He is also very corrupt; he is not respected here in Yemen.”

The regional response has also been strong. On Tuesday, The Arab League strongly condemned “the crimes committed against civilians,” and called for  “concerted efforts to safeguard national unity and the right to free expression.” The League re-emphasised the need for dialogue and “democratic methods” to address the demands of the people.

Even the United States, long a supporter of the Yemeni president, has become increasingly uncomfortable with its former protégé. A willing accomplice in the US government’s practice of “extraordinary rendition”, the Yemeni regime has allowed the United States military to conduct actions against suspected Al Qaeda militants and been a beneficiary of their financial and military aid. Stopping short of calling for Saleh’s departure, the Obama administration has emphasised the need to allow peaceful protest, to engage in genuine dialogue and has refused to accept the president’s paper-thin excuse that the deaths of protesters were caused by a backlash from local residents, in effect, laying the blame Saleh himself.

France has again taken the initiative as the first western power to call for the removal of the president. Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, speaking in Paris, said that the president’s resignation was “unavoidable.” He has made clear France’s support for the pro-democracy protesters.

President Saleh has also faced calls for his resignation from various tribal leaders. Whilst tribal affiliations are strong in Yemen, and President Saleh has made a point of including leaders from different tribes in the running of the state to ensure loyalty to the ruling party, the party is not broadly representative of the tribes and nor are they especially loyal to the ruling party. The leaders of the opposition also have broad tribal representation, but again those affiliated leaders are not necessarily seen as representative of the tribes. Saleh has tried to rally tribal leaders, and whilst numerous sheiks have pledged their support, he has been abandoned by many others and criticised for encouraging militarisation and polarisation.

Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political commentator, points out that strong tribal affiliation applies to perhaps only 20% of the population, with the rest being peasants or city-dwellers who lack strong tribal links and identities.  http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/peopleandpower/2011/03/201131612514814636.html The tribes are “hardly monolithic” he writes, and loyalties are not as clear cut as some might expect. The dominant tribe in the north, the Hashed tribal confederacy, from which Saleh and his family come, have members in both the ruling party and the opposition. Even they have issued a statement asking the president to leave peacefully and accede to the demands of the protesters. The larger Bakeel tribal confederacy have ostensibly sided with the regime, but there is significant division within the confederacy and they too have members in the opposition parties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Houthis in the north, a group who has, periodically, been fighting a civil war against Sanaa since 2004, have sided with the protesters. The long-neglected south of the country, where a strong secessionist movement has existed since losing the 1994 civil war, has, remarkably, put aside their secessionist agenda to support the opposition.

As to the nature of the opposition, it consists of several political parties, the two largest being the Islamist ‘Islaah’ party and the Yemeni Socialist Party, along with  Baathists, Nasserists and an assortment of smaller parties. Ironically, in a country in which women have few rights and are heavily marginalised, the most prominent activist is a woman, Tawakkol Karman, founder of the group Women Journalists Without Chains. She has been pivotal in organising the protesters in Taghyeer Square and ensuring that protesters do not bring weapons to demonstrations.

So where does all this leave Yemen?

Yemen has long been a troubled nation. It ranks 149th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index, only a third of the population has access to safe drinking water and most people are poor. Literacy amongst women is a shocking 29%, whilst for men it is more than double at 69%. Roughly 35% of the population is urban, whilst the rest are rural. The country has a very small middle class and unemployment is high across the board. In Aden, the largest city of the south, youth unemployment stands at 40%, though that is only the official statistic. Access to employment is largely based on favouritism, bribes and political or familial connections. The country suffers from terrible corruption, lack of equality, failure to enforce the law and little oversight or regulation. It is estimated that the country’s oil reserves will run out in 2017.

The state in Yemen is especially weak. It lacks much of the hard and soft infrastructure required to sustain a strong civil system, and any hope of moving forward in Yemen should a political transition take place, will, to all intents and purposes, require building a state system from the ground up.

The country has also been neglected by the western media, whose attention has largely remained focussed on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Despite increasingly strong condemnations, very little real pressure has been applied against Saleh, unsurprisingly drawing cries of hypocrisy against the international community. Even more so than was the case with Egypt, the United States has been extremely cautious in its criticism of Saleh’s regime, despite the killings. There is little likelihood of any intervention taking place, especially considering the divided, mixed and volatile nature of the country. It seems the world is watching and waiting for an internal solution, which appears increasingly likely.

The question is, however, what will that solution be? Neither the tribes nor political parties will want a civil war, though this bleak prospect remains. Further military and diplomatic defections are likely, in the long or short term, to result in the downfall of President Saleh, but there is much uncertainty about what happens next. Will there be a genuine democratic process, or will it result in a military dictatorship, a fear the president has been keen to promote? And if a democratic transition takes place, how successful will it be in avoiding the taint of corruption or being hi-jacked by religious extremists? It seems that in this case, the world is happy to wait and see.


Originally published in New Matilda on 23/03/11.


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When the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, called a ceasefire last Friday, only hours after the UN Security Council voted in favour of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, it seemed for a brief moment as though Gaddafi’s campaign against his own people had been brought to a halt. This unforeseen move by the Libyan government caused much speculation as to whether this was merely a time-buying bluff, a genuine fear of imminent attack, or evidence of internal divisions in the regime. Within hours it became clear that far from observing the ceasefire, Gaddafi’s forces were not merely continuing their assault on the rebels holed up in the western city of Misurata, but were also making a concerted advance on Benghazi. Thus, late Saturday afternoon, on the back of swift preparations, the no-fly zone entered its operational phase and operation Odyssey Dawn, the largest military intervention in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq almost exactly eight years ago, was underway. Rarely has there been such a swift move from resolution to action.

Resolution #1973 gives wide scope for action against Gaddafi’s forces. After a strongly condemnatory preamble, paragraph 4, concerning the protection of civilians, “Authorizes Member States… to take all necessary measures (my italics) … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” With its expressed desire to protect civilians “in places exposed to shelling”, the resolution, in effect, has authorised attacks not merely against Gaddafi’s air force and air defences, but also against ground forces. Malcolm Shaw, professor of international law at the University of Leicester, said the resolution gave “the broadest powers for intervention” since the UN resolution in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Whilst the US was for a long time keen to avoid intervention, Britain and France have been forthright in calling for action. More cynical observers have questioned the motivation behind British and French determination to intervene, whilst others have argued it is as much an effort to make up for their reluctance and blundering at the start of the “Arab Spring.” The French initially offered riot police to the now-overthrown Tunisian regime. David Cameron was heavily criticised for attending an arms trade fair in Abu Dhabi, and stung by accusations that his response to the evacuation of British nationals from Libya was too slow.

The strong nature of the resolution is in part due to a very recent hardening of American lines on this matter. The U.S. Secretary of State called the decision by the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone a “game changer.” More recently, the United States has further clarified their demands from the Libyan government and armed forces, with President Obama stating that Colonel Gaddafi must not only observe a ceasefire and stop his troops from advancing further, but also restore water, electricity and gas supplies to the rebel cities of Misurata and Ajdabiyah, restore communications, and allow the passage of humanitarian aid. Terms which Obama emphasised were “not negotiable.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s bellicose rhetoric suggests he is unlikely to comply with these requests. “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he said, threatening attacks across the Mediterranean. “Libya is not yours…The security council resolution is invalid,” he wrote in an open letter to David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ban Ki-Moon. “You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country.” Despite his earlier railing against Al Qaeda, Gaddafi has begun to play the Islamic card, calling the intervening powers “Crusaders.” It appears that no one, either in or out of the Arab world, is buying it.

Whilst the resolution does not call for the removal of Gaddafi, there is broad agreement inside and outside of the coalition that his removal from power is essential to achieve a conclusion to the Libyan crisis. And whilst the resolution explicitly omits the use of an “occupation force”, many commentators have noted that even this wording is ambiguous and that it might not rule out ground attacks by special forces. What has been described as a “multi-phase operation” will likely continue until compliance is achieved or another solution is found.

Despite hopes across the board for a swift conclusion, the outcome of this operation is still very uncertain. Will the air campaign be sufficient to sway those forces loyal to Gaddafi either to flee or switch sides? Will revolt come from inside the regime? Will the people return to the streets? Even if a ceasefire were to be observed, it is unlikely that either Gaddafi or the rebel council would accept any power-sharing arrangements. Gaddafi has promised “a long war with no limits,” whether or not he can sustain it remains to be seen.

Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in previous conflicts such as those in the Balkans. The people are essentially all Sunni Muslims and the state has maintained a strong national identity for more than 70 years. We can only hope that if a prolonged conflict ensues it will not create deep and irreparable divisions in Libyan society.

It is often said of a film that the landscape is the real star. In Libya, the landscape has done and will continue to prove pivotal. With the vast bulk of the country’s population living in cities stretched along the Mediterranean seaboard, linked by long, open highways, the terrain of northern Libya has until now played into Gaddafi’s hands. Unlike the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the flat, dry desert and scrub does not lend itself to guerrilla warfare and the absence of any rebel air-cover has made it easy for Gaddafi to move up tanks and artillery and to transport men. Outnumbered and subject to far superior firepower, the rebels could only retreat to their towns where their inability to control the hinterland made them vulnerable to siege tactics, such as cutting off supplies of water and electricity.

The lethal air power and missile assault brought to bear by the coalition forces has made Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry extremely vulnerable. It is likely for this reason that his tanks tried, unsuccessfully, to push their way into Benghazi, not only in an attempt to capture the town swiftly, but also to make them harder to target for fear of civilian deaths. The NATO intervention in Kosovo, initially conducted against Serbian airpower, was constrained in its ability to operate against ground units, with each target requiring approval by all nineteen member states. No such constraints exist in the Libyan context and, indeed, the first strike of the military intervention was against Gaddafi’s tanks as they encroached on Benghazi. Having failed in his initial assault, in part due to French airstrikes against his armour, Gaddafi’s supply lines are now stretched and subject to air attack.

Given the nature of the terrain, the conflict could well bog down into  stalemate with opposing sides bunkered down in their respective strongholds, unable to move in the open either through fear of air-strikes, or lack of capability. As the conflict centres more around urban areas, accurate intelligence will be essential to avoid civilian deaths and maintain goodwill for the coalition forces. Yet time will ultimately be against Gaddafi, with the long-term prospect of being a pariah state, encased in sanctions and blockaded by air and sea, no doubt playing on the minds both of citizens, soldiers and Libyan government officials. Ideally, the solution will now come from within. Whatever the case, we can only hope that the wounds this war will leave can quickly heal.


This article was first published in New Matilda on March 21, 2011.


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The United Nations Security Council has finally approved a no-fly zone over Libya after a lengthy debate on the subject. The resolution was passed with five abstentions, from Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil. To those of us calling for such a measure in the past few weeks, this announcement comes as a very welcome show of support for the rebels struggling against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and renews hope that the rebels will not be defeated in their struggle. It may prove too little too late, and the member states who have agreed to participate in enforcing the No Fly Zone must act immediately to halt the advance of Gaddafi’s forces on Benghazi and to relieve the siege of Misurata.

Resolution 1973 makes a clear and unambiguous condemnation of Gaddafi’s recent actions in its lengthy preamble:

“Condemning the gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions…”

It states that “the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.”

It makes special note of the prior condemnations of the League of Arab States, the African Union and the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference against Gaddafi’s serious human rights violations. It references the decision by the Council of the League of Arab States to call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, and to establish safe areas “in places exposed to shelling,” and deplores Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries. The resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire.

The most strident, and no doubt, ultimately, most contentious passage of the resolution lies in Paragraph 4, regarding the protection of civilians. The resolution “Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures (my italics), notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.”

Consider this in combination with the resolution’s expressed desire to establish safe areas protecting civilians “in places exposed to shelling” and there can only be one conclusion. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, in effect, authorises the participating member states to enforce a no-drive zone upon Gaddafi’s military forces. It effectively authorizes attacks not merely against Gaddafi’s air force, but also against any heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery and mobile artillery, which approach within firing distance of rebel-held areas.

The strong nature of the resolution is in part due to a very recent hardening of American lines on this matter. The U.S. Secretary of State called the decision by the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone a “game changer.” On Thursday, in Tunisia, Clinton stated:

“We want to support the opposition who are standing against the dictator. This is a man who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way.”

The response of Colonel Gaddafi’s was, to say the least, typical.

“If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he said. “Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack. The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s threats are unlikely to do him any favours, and, if anything, will only confirm in the minds of those now pitted against him, that his regime must be shut down.

Meanwhile, in the Twitterverse, the debate continues between those concerned for the consequences of western military intervention and those who feel any measures must now be taken to prevent the defeat of the rebel forces and the capture of Benghazi. The vast majority of tweets, however, express support for the United Nations resolution.

@ShababLibya, a popular voice with over 28000 followers representing the “Libyan Youth Movement”, a loose coalition of people inside and outside of Libya, on hearing of the resolution tweeted: “LONG LIVE FREE LIBYA SOON GOD WILLING”

Other commentators have raised concerns about the spectre of western imperialism and the intentions of France and Italy in the aftermath of the intervention. There are also concerns for further damage to Libya’s infrastructure or threats to civilians from western attacks, yet these are dwarfed by the desire to see action taken against Gaddafi’s forces.

The question now is, how soon can the no-fly zone be implemented and will it actually work? Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, emphasised the need to act as soon as possible. “We want to stop the attacks by the Gaddafi regime against civilian populations. And it’s a question of days or hours because the pressure against Benghazi, especially, is now very tough.” Italy has already opened its air force and naval bases in Sicily for operations against Libya. This is the most likely place from which to enforce the no-fly zone. Bloomberg reports that Egypt has already started to supply small arms to the rebel fighters.

Still, the situation is desperate for the rebels, though the exact nature of the situation, tactically, is difficult to determine. There are rumours of fighting still taking place in Ajdabiya, of skirmishes thirty miles beyond on the road to Benghazi, of a concerted advance against Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces. There have also been rumours of fresh protests in Zawiya, the western city recently recaptured by Gaddafi’s forces. It is difficult to be certain exactly how quickly Gaddafi can move on Benghazi, with how much force and how effective any assault from his forces might prove to be. On hearing of the resolution he immediately made clear his intention of taking Benghazi within 48 hours. He claimed he would show “no mercy” in assaulting the city. “The matter has been decided … we are coming,” he stated in a radio broadcast on Thursday. Again he resorted to his earlier rhetoric calling the rebels “rats” and “gangsters” and urged Benghazi residents to “go out and cleanse the city of Benghazi.”

“We will track them down,” said Gaddafi, “and search for them, alley by alley, road by road … Massive waves of people will be crawling out to rescue the people of Benghazi, who are calling out for help, asking us to rescue them. We should come to their rescue.”

The residents of Benghazi, along with other rebel-held areas, have not been receptive to Gaddafi’s message. Their celebrations in the wake of the announcement of the United Nations resolution have been ecstatic to say the least. Their morale and likely their determination to repel any attack on their city should improve significantly now they know they will receive assistance, indeed, now that they have already begun to receive assistance.

The no-fly zone must be implemented immediately, and it must be implemented in a most robust manner. To prevent further civilian deaths, it will be necessary to knock out Gaddafi’s hardware, not just stop his planes from flying. The effectiveness of airstrikes has been proven in the past, though they alone have rarely been sufficient. The world has lost its patience with Gaddafi, has expressed the legitimacy of the rebels who seek a democratic process in their country and an end to dictatorship. They must now put their money where their mouth is and make this possible. We can only hope that robust action now will give pause to those units of the Libyan army still fighting for Colonel Gaddafi and encourage their defection. The game has changed again, only now Gaddafi finds himself pitted against forces far superior to his own. Allowing him to win is unthinkable. The world must take, as stated in the resolution, ALL MEASURES NECESSARY.

Here is the full text of the resolution, courtesy of The Guardian:


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There has been much debate about the pros and cons of intervention in Libya, particularly around the question of imposing a no-fly zone. Understandably, it is difficult to achieve consensus on such important decisions and the international community is right to question both the merits and possible dangers of intervention. One thing, however, on which there appears to be a very broad consensus is that Gaddafi must cease military action against his own people and step down. He has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation council. The rebels are now in a very tenuous position and sure to lose if unassisted. They have admitted they lack the firepower to repel Gaddafi’s assault. So what on earth are we waiting for?

Despite what was taking place in Egypt and Tunisia and across the region, Gaddafi appears to have been caught off guard by the scale of the Libyan uprising and the speed and intensity with which it spread. For a man who has never trusted his own army and neglected it as a consequence, there was a difficult period in which Gaddafi could not take robust action, beyond sicking his security forces on protesters, because he simply did not trust the integrity of his defence force.

This situation has now changed in Gaddafi’s favour. It would appear that those who intended to defect have already done so, and either through fear of reprisal, handouts of stashed petro-dollars, gullibility in the face of propaganda, and even genuine loyalty, likely more tribal than personal, much of the army has decided to stay with Gaddafi.

Now, considerably more confident in the loyalty of his forces, Gaddafi has begun to deploy them in far more robust actions. The rebels have been driven from Ras Lanuf and now Brega, and their situation is worsening rapidly as Gaddafi’s advance gathers momentum. Despite their material, organisational and, likely, morale problems, the Libyan Army is still a far more effective fighting force than the ad-hoc army of the rebels. This advance may slow as they approach the city of Benghazi where rebel defences will be more concentrated, but should Benghazi come under siege, as it no doubt will, there is potential for terrific loss of life.

There is still much uncertainty about the balance of forces and the quality of the Libyan Army’s equipment has come into question. Long years of embargo and, in some cases, deliberate neglect, has ensured that much of the army’s materiel is not serviceable. This has also been compounded by the diversity of equipment deployed by the army; purchased from a variety of different manufacturers and with varying degrees of antiquity, it has been difficult to secure spare parts for repairs or upgrades. Since the lifting of the embargo in 2004, the European Union, spearheaded by Italy, has been Libya’s largest arms exporter, selling an estimated total of more than 800 million Euros worth of contracts. This has mostly consisted of small arms, missiles, electronic equipment, ammunition and fuses and military planes, along with crowd control equipment such as tear gas. Much of the army’s heavier equipment, however, is relatively ancient, consisting of Russian T55s, T62s and the considerably more effective T72s. The army has around one thousand BMP-1, armoured personnel carriers, over two thousand pieces of artillery, including 160 modern VCA Palmaria 155mm mobile howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, heavy and light machine guns, various types of rocket-propelled grenades, surface to air missiles, recoilless rifles, mortars. The air force consists of around 119 Russian MiG 23s, 25-odd MiG 21s and 39 Sukhoi 22 assault planes, 83 helicopters, including 37 Mil Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters.

This is just to name some of the military’s capability, and it must be stressed that this is on paper. No one is certain as to how much of this equipment is genuinely serviceable, just as no one is certain how much equipment has fallen into rebel hands, nor exactly how many of the army’s estimated 45000 soldiers have defected. The east is home to two of Libya’s seven military regions, containing several army bases and four out of the country’s seven air force bases. In a war such as this, heavy weapons will be significant, but perhaps more significant will be smaller-scale anti-personnel weaponry such as mortars, grenades, light and heavy machine guns, and anti-tank weaponry. A tank can be knocked out with a recoilless rifle or a molotov cocktail and they are vulnerable in urban areas, but they are still devastating against infantry and vehicles. If the rebels lack heavy equipment, then their best strategy must be to dig in and fortify the towns and immediate hinterland, not to combat the Libyan army in the field, where they will also suffer for total lack of air cover. The initial enthusiasm with which the rebels rushed west, a gamble they had to take, now seems decidedly naive; they are significantly under-gunned, overstretched and lack coordination. They must concentrate their forces for a concerted defensive effort. Still, all they can hope to do is hold out until help arrives.

The time to act is now. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has backed the imposition of a no-fly zone and has declared Gaddafi’s regime illegitimate. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, has stated he wants a no-fly zone over Libya, and wants the League to take a lead role in its imposition. These are significant developments considering the traditional reluctance of countries in the region to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. It is now not only the West who has condemned Gaddafi, but the Middle East, broadly speaking. NATO has been waiting for regional support before making a stronger case to the UN Security Council, and they now have it. This will perhaps be more difficult still, considering the general unwillingness of China and Russia to sanction intervention. In such a case, is a new resolution really necessary?

Despite the questionable legitimacy of acting outside of United Nations authority, the situation is sufficiently desperate to warrant it. But what sort of action? There is no room for semantic niceties here; the imposition of a no-fly zone in effect constitutes military intervention as it would require action against the Libyan forces, including scrambling to intercept fighters, transport planes and helicopters and targeting anti-aircraft weapons. If a no-fly zone receives approval, why not approve strategic, targeted strikes against Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, transport vehicles and ammunition depots? Why not commit to equipping and arming the rebels? It brings to mind the famous quote of George Bernard-Shaw: “We have established what you are, madam. We are now merely haggling over the price.” In for a penny, in for a pound.

The real question, of course, is who will take action? NATO? With all the risks of American involvement? If the region supports more robust action, then why not have a regional response? Turkey won’t have a bar of it and no one seems willing to commit to putting troops on the ground, yet the Egyptian army, in spite of its current and not insignificant pre-occupations, could play a very important role here. They have the largest and most sophisticated force in the region, being able to call upon just under a million personnel and almost four thousand tanks, including a thousand M1 Abrams tanks, modified to the most modern M1A2 SEP Standard. This alongside countless other armoured vehicles including tank destroyers, personnel carriers and mobile artillery. The Egyptian air force boasts 220 F16 fighter-bombers amongst a wide array of Russian and French-made aircraft. A quick and ruthless strike against Gaddafi’s military hardware could well be sufficient to encourage his forces to turn against him. A ground incursion would be far more complicated, tactically and politically, but faced by well-trained and far-better equipped Egyptian forces, the wavering Libyan forces might be encouraged to defect. Is it unreasonably romantic, bearing in mind the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest that strong action by Egypt might not only succeed, but ultimately bring the two nations closer together, as well as give the Egyptian military a heroic finale as they retire from public life?

Action by Egypt, or anyone, for that matter, would be fraught with dangers. The risks of becoming involved in a situation that could prove very stubborn are many. Apart from the cost and political consequences, invasion by a foreign power could be misconstrued as opportunistic and become a vehicle for regime propaganda. One is minded of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia in 1978. Also seeking to remove a repressive regime and, supporting more moderate separatists, the Vietnamese army made short work of Pol Pot’s regime, capturing the capital Phnom Penh in just two weeks. The upshot of this by no means entirely altruistic action, however, was a Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia for the following ten years. No external power would find such a scenario desirable in Libya’s case.

Still, something must be done and the time to act is now. Not “now” tomorrow or “now” next week, but now, today, this very hour. Gaddafi’s forces are encircling Misrata in the west and have driven the rebels from Brega in the east. The rebels are ill-equipped and many do not have any professional combat training. Their equipment is inferior and their ammunition is limited. The only advantage they have is their unquestionable determination and the rightness of their cause. We cannot forget that this began as a peaceful demonstration. It was Gaddafi who used violence, Gaddafi who fired the first shots against his own people. The international community, the Arab League and the GCC have shown rare consensus in condemning Gaddafi’s actions; sanctions have been imposed and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has initiated an investigation for crimes against humanity. In a world of uncertain truths and morality, largely run by hypocrites, has there been a more clear-cut scenario in recent times, in the time since Kosovo?

A no-fly zone is nowhere near enough. Gaddafi’s successes have not come through air power, but through increasingly relentless ground assault. Indeed, the air force has appeared suspiciously incompetent when it comes to hitting targets, prompting the question that these potentially sympathetic pilots are missing deliberately. Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, recently said that we cannot allow another Guernica to take place, referring to the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. In truth, we cannot allow another Spanish Civil War to happen.

What the rebels have begun can neither be undone nor stopped. The scale of the initial unrest, even inside Gaddafi’s loyal strongholds, made it clear how much the Libyan people want a democratic process and an end to dictatorship. How many people will die in the fighting if it is allowed to continue? How many people will be murdered in the aftermath if we allow the rebels to be defeated? And they will be defeated, given time. Unless further major defections take place, Gaddafi’s superior numbers, tanks and artillery will grind the rebel forces down, more quickly than most expect. What, do we imagine, will the aftermath be? A Libya led by a threatened warlord, encased in hard sanctions, reprisals and detentions, the people deeply distrustful of each other; growing bitterness and disorder, a general hardening of lines. Will the EU, America or anyone for that matter, seek to rehabilitate Gaddafi one last time? It is, quite simply, inhumane to take the risk of inaction. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague said, on BBC Radio: “If Gaddafi went on to… dominate much of the country, well this would be a long nightmare for the Libyan people and this would be a pariah state for some time to come.”

The world must now follow France in recognising the rebel Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya and act quickly to make them so. The Council too must organise itself more centrally and effectively, mirroring important portfolios. With an eye to the future, the rebels must also guarantee not to undertake reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists if they are ultimately successful. An amnesty for foreign mercenaries will also be necessary to avoid further chaos and bloodshed. It will be difficult, given the strength of feeling, but if they hope to form a new, democratic Libya, they must avoid actions that will entrench divisions. Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in the Balkans. The Libyan people can be brought together ultimately, provided there is sufficient oversight to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity, and the distribution of wealth and power. If the world does not step in, countless more people will die. It’s an ugly and brutal expression, but what is needed in Libya now is a display of shock and awe to halt Gaddafi’s advance and buy the rebels time. It’s time to go in and go in hard.

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We look at the abolition of slavery in the West as one of our greatest moral achievements. The abhorrence of a system that classified a certain part of humanity as sub-human and subject to the whims of superior races and powers was recognised and legislated against almost two centuries ago. Subsequent battles for the granting of equal rights to coloured people in the United States, citizenship for Australian aborigines in 1967, and the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have been ongoing, if all too long overdue, successes in granting equality to the segregated and oppressed. This equality before the law is now something we not so much as take for granted, but consider absolutely fundamental to a modern, liberal society. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher, famously said that “Man was born free, yet is everywhere in chains.” And whilst in many places around the world man is still in chains, so to speak, the situation is generally worse for women.

In the West, women’s rights were slow in coming, but advanced rapidly throughout the twentieth century with a rolling introduction of universal adult suffrage across Europe, the United States and many former colonial territories, equal opportunities in education and employment, much greater flexibility in laws governing marriage and divorce, the criminalisation of spousal rape, increased state support for single mothers and, more recently, the introduction of paid maternity leave in many countries. There are still battles being fought over unequal salaries, glass-ceilings, workplace discrimination, trial and punishment of sexual offenders, objectification and chauvinism, yet these remaining battles, many of which are the result of entrenched prejudices in traditionally masculine cliques, which are, if slowly, being eroded, as opposed to laws deliberately limiting a woman’s rights, can be fought now by women empowered with rights, education and employment who are free to vote and air their grievances. Sadly, however, this is rarely the case across the Middle East.

In the Middle East women’s rights are in some cases so limited as to constitute a second-class citizenship that is no less marginalising than slavery. There have certainly been advances in granting freedoms and rights to women in the letter of the law, particularly in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, but discrimination is so culturally entrenched that custom often overrules this. The situation of women varies dramatically across the region according not only to country, but to class, economic status, tribal and familial ties, marital status, education and political orientation. It is foolhardy to make sweeping generalisations when one considers just how great the contrasts can be. It is also worth considering that western perceptions of Middle Eastern women are deeply flawed, where an obsession with the restrictive dress-codes imposed in many countries leads to the presumption that such women are incapable of outspoken political and social activism or feminism for that matter. This myth has recently been exploded by the thousands of women protesters seen in demonstrations across the Middle East, fully veiled or otherwise. Women across the region have long been involved in labour organisations, union movements, and other types of grass-roots political activism. In some cases they have brought about important victories in securing improvements to their situation. The fact remains, however, that the situation of women right across the Middle East is, broadly speaking, one dogged by discrimination, marginalisation, segregation, and in some cases, outright slavery.

The recent uprisings, rebellions and two successful revolutions that have occurred across the region give new hope for an acceleration of the process of improving women’s rights. It is a tenuous situation, for there is as much to lose as there is to gain. Will the women who have come forward to protest in such great numbers be heard? Will constitutional reforms result in significant changes to their legal, social, economic and political situation? Will they gain or lose rights in the process? It is difficult to be certain, but one thing is clear, they are voicing their concerns on a scale not seen before in the region, empowered by new technologies to organise and share ideas and information. It will be very difficult for anyone to ignore their concerns in future.

So what is the situation of women in the Middle East? As noted above, their circumstances vary just as significantly as their attitude to their circumstances. It is worthwhile taking a look at the current state of affairs.

Egypt, Tunisia and Libya

First, to Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries who so recently deposed their leaders through popular revolution, in favour of a new, democratic constitutional process. In both countries women have a considerable number of freedoms enviable in other parts of the region, particularly in Tunisia. Tunisian women were the first to receive the vote, not long after independence in 1956. In Tunisia, Polygamy is banned and marriage is conditional on the woman’s consent. Women have the right to have abortions and are well educated, with the highest levels of literacy in North Africa. Indeed, women outnumber men as University graduates and have been filling the ranks of the medical and legal professions. They have equal rights to hold office and have impressive levels of representation.

Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a Tunisian psychiatrist who lives in Paris states:

“It’s no coincidence that the revolution first started in Tunisia, where we have a high level of education, a sizeable middle class and a greater degree of gender equality,” she said. “We had all the ingredients of democracy but not democracy itself. That just couldn’t last.”

In Egypt, women can drive, go to college and dress in Western clothing, yet they experience discrimination in the workplace, are subject to domestic violence, and have traditionally had next to no say in the leadership of the country. Sexual harassment in Egypt is also rife. Women often avoid public places and crowds as they will almost certainly be subject to groping, propositions, solicitations, or simply cat calls. A survey in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women in the country had been sexually harassed.

Doaa Abdelaal, a member of the organisation Women Living Under Muslim Law, suggests a more open society will lead to a significant reduction in sexual harassment.

“In an oppressive society, people oppress each other,” she said. “It’s a justification for everyone to be unjust. Under a more open society these things can be discussed, I think changes will happen.”

Despite marginalisation from politics, women have long been active at a grass-roots level. Many if not most of the strikes in the labour movement have been started by women. Whenever violence erupts, it is often the women who come forward to challenge the police, being beaten no less for their trouble.

In Tahrir Square, there was a new dynamic between men and women. Women fought alongside men in the frontline and, with the absolute need for unity and solidarity, a change of perception appears to have taken place. Women earned a long-overdue respect for their strength and determination. Viewed at last as equal partners in a shared cause, women in Egypt can only hope that the spirit of unity during the days of the revolution can be sustained and bring about both legal and societal change. There is great momentum among women’s movements to step up their campaigns for equality. Young women in their thousands, from all classes of society, have already been stepping forward to take an active part in women’s organisations promoting equality, democracy and non-discrimination. There has been an explosion of activity on the internet, on Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Sadly, however, this has not so far translated into practice. The new constitutional committee in Egypt has NO female members and one wonders whether women’s rights will be adequately enshrined in the new constitution and laws that may emerge. We can at the very least hope that their situation does not go backwards, but one thing is certain – that Egyptian women and their counterparts in Tunisia will not back down from voicing their concerns and raising their issues in the future. They have broken the fear barrier, mobilised en masse, and they will continue to press their case. They must do so, for the sake of Egypt and Tunisia, and also for the sake of the region.

Staying in North Africa, Libya, for all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses, has long had a relatively liberal attitude to women’s rights and social position. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women have had the right to vote and to participate in politics; they can drive, travel freely, work without consent from a male and spend time with whoever they wish. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984.

With Libya currently in the middle of a rebellion that is rapidly turning to civil war, the situation is very uncertain. It seems unlikely that Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya now since 1969, can retain power for much longer, especially now that the international community has roundly condemned him. Some form of constitutional change is likely in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully this will further empower women with the right to participate in a genuine, open and accountable democratic process. The rebels, who have taken control of the east of the country and large parts of the west have organised themselves into broadly representative collectives calling for a democratic constitution. In a country not known for Islamic conservatism which is very used to women not only dressing in western-style clothing, but being very active and visible in the workplace, one can only hope that things do not change for the worse so far as women’s rights and freedoms are concerned.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran

Saudi Arabia is the most obvious example of the gulf between men and women’s rights in the region. In Saudi Arabia, where the law prohibits women from driving or voting, women’s rights are defined by a strict Sunni interpretation of Sharia known as Salafi or Wahhabi. These laws, being largely unwritten, are essentially discretionary. In practice, however, they mean that women require the permission of a male guardian to seek education or employment, open a bank account, have elective surgery and to marry or divorce. Women are only allowed to travel within registered countries, and, if not accompanied by a male, then with an identity card registered to a male guardian. The peculiarities of the guardianship system mean that, in some circumstances, women may have to get the permission of their sons to remarry. To buy or sell property a woman requires two male witnesses to confirm her identity, and four further witnesses to confirm the integrity of the two male witnesses.

Forced marriage was banned in 2005, however women do not have any practical involvement in arranging their own marriages. Marriage is a contract between husband and father of the bride. Polygamy remains legal and Saudi men may have as many as four wives. The practice is widespread throughout the country. There is no official law setting minimum age for marriage. Religious authorities have allowed girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15 to marry. In reality, however, there is no official barrier to a father marrying off his daughter at any age so long as sexual intercourse is prevented until puberty. Again, however, there is no real scope for enforcement of such a guideline.

Written law does not specifically criminalise rape or prescribe punishment. The victim is often punished as well, usually for dressing immoderately and being in the company of men in the first place, and there is no law against rape by a spouse. Migrant women, especially domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable; their circumstances are often much like those of slaves, including physical abuse and rape.

In the courts, one man’s testimony is considered the equal of that of two women. Only men over the age of 30 may serve as lawmakers and women are generally excluded from holding high office.

Women are discouraged from using public transport and many of the major bus companies will not allow women passengers. Their only option is to use taxis or private drivers, which, ironically, is technically forbidden as it requires mixing with strange men, but is largely unenforced on account of there being next to no other option. When women are allowed to use trains or buses, they must enter via a separate entrance and sit in a different section. Most buildings throughout the country have separate entrances for men and women, restaurants have separate dining areas.

Consequently, women in Saudi Arabia make up between 5% and 15% of the workforce, whereas female employment averages 40% in other Muslim nations. Literacy is lower amongst women, though those who do make it into the workplace are far more likely to have secondary and tertiary education than men.

Certainly a broad spectrum of Saudi women support traditional gender roles. Surveys repeatedly show this, with widespread concern for the erosion of Islamic society and cultural traditions. One wonders, however, whether these attitudes would prevail if the Saudi education system was not designed to indoctrinate women into conservative Saudi values. Official policy states that: “The purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment.” In school girls are taught that their primary role is to raise children and take care of the household. A woman’s place is at home, whilst a man’s place is in the workforce. The standard of teaching for women is generally lower and less professional.

And what of women who do want more rights and desire to live a more open life? Many find solace in online networking, living more a virtual life than a real life. Online they can express their feelings, protest about their situation and maintain social connections with friends they cannot otherwise see in public. Facebook is the principal vehicle for such social networking, though even this freedom is under threat of being curtailed. In 2007, a young woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. The conservative response was not to punish the father, but to call for the banning of Facebook! One cleric called it a “door to lust” and cause of “social strife”.

Saudi Arabia has the advantage of being a very wealthy country. Whilst women are segregated, their standard of living is relatively high compared to much of the rest of the region. King Abdullah has made some effort to advance women’s freedoms, opening the first co-educational university in the country and publicly stating that women should have the right to drive, and, ultimately, to vote. Yet squeamishness about the impact of this on conservative Islamic values, the opposition and often violent rhetoric of conservative clergy has retarded this process significantly.

What culture is so weak that it must force people to adhere to its norms for fear of change? Why not merely place a glass case over the country and label it a museum exhibit, or preserve the entire nation in aspic? Culture has always been a dynamic, fluid thing, subject to internal and external influences. It is, in effect, the sum of collective behaviours. If women do wish to maintain the status quo, then they should be allowed to choose to do so, not forced to do so. If they do not wish to do so, then the country must respect that this is the choice of its people, rather than enforce the choice of a small clique who have, very arrogantly, arrogated to themselves responsibility for the opinion of others. Whatever free people choose to do has as much validity as “culture” as what has come before.

Change will come very slowly to Saudi Arabia, whose society is as much a product of traditional Saudi culture as it is of Islam. Saudi Arabia has long been exporting its cultural and religious values, using its money and influence in neighbouring countries. It will likely remain the Alamo of the region, a last hold-out for what is perceived as conservative Islam. One can only hope, for the sake of women across the region, that this process will now switch into reverse. If the ultimate, long-term outcome of the revolutions and uprisings in the region is that the country becomes increasingly surrounded by more open, liberal democracies with vocal female democrats, this may well bring change to the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Yemen is still worse, prompting Rachel Cooke of The Observer to ask the question, “Is this the worst place on earth to be a woman?”

In Yemen, sexual segregation is in full force and, as is often the case in Saudi Arabia, the areas reserved for women are of a lower standard than those reserved for men. This situation is greatly exacerbated by Yemen’s dire poverty. In Yemen, women have no citizenship rights, they are largely uneducated, more likely than not to be married before puberty, cannot marry without permission of a male relative, and have a 1 in 39 chance of dying during childbirth. In Yemen, almost all doctors are men, which means women almost invariably go untreated, as showing any part of their body to a man would be considered shameful. With so few midwives, it is understandable why birth-related mortality is so high.

In Yemen women cannot leave the house unaccompanied by a male, or without male permission, and even in the latter case, they are subject to arbitrary arrest simply for being outside the home. Strict dress-codes prevail in this very religious society and whilst most women would choose to cover themselves completely out of respect for tradition, the risks of not doing so are far too great to exercise choice in this matter. Anyone with any sort of uniform, or without, for that matter, can stop a woman and arrest her on suspicion of just about anything, usually some very loose interpretation of adultery, prostitution or indecency, which could be as little as being in the proximity of an unrelated male. In some cases men solicit women, and, when rejected, seek revenge by denouncing the woman as a prostitute to local authorities. Arrested women are regularly beaten in prison until forced to confess to a crime they did not commit. The prisons are full of young women, often with babies, who not only have little idea why they are there, as charges are not often clear, but also have no set trial date.

Yemen ranks 149th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index. Only a third of the population has access to safe drinking water and most people are poor. Literacy amongst women is a shocking 29%, whilst for men it is more than double at 69% There is one female MP amongst 301 total members. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was unified with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 – a bitter process that led to civil war in 1994 – was previously a Marxist state with a comparatively feminist constitution. Those rights have vanished over the last twenty years with the enforcement of Saudi-style Wahhabism. On the plus side, women are allowed to drive – hardly much of a sell, given the rest of the circumstances.

Despite much work being done on the ground by various NGOs and aid agencies, Yemen’s culture of public and private discrimination is so entrenched that one wonders how it could ever shift. Even women who have experienced childhood marriage and been forced to have sex from as young as eleven or twelve, and who have subsequently admitted to the horror they experienced, have said that they would not prevent their daughters marrying early. To those of us used to living in a largely free, equal and liberal society, this is all rather hard to stomach. It takes a certain measure of arrogance and boldness to suggest that these attitudes would change with education, development and an increased freedom of choice backed by legal rights, but surely it is so. To change the culture, you first have to change the law. Culture will always drag its heels, but with legal protection, education, access to information, the vote, property rights and increasingly backed by their own finances, women could ultimately be empowered to challenge mistreatment by men. This is unlikely to happen in a hurry, without a radical shift in the political paradigm, in other words, a revolution. Even then, there is little guarantee women’s rights will improve.

Despite Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s more restrictive laws for women, Iran draws more international ire due to its perceived strategic intentions in the region, it’s nuclear program, the recent lethal post-electoral crackdown on protestors, and its awful practice of stoning women, among other execrable capital and corporal punishments.

The situation of women in Iran has deteriorated significantly since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Female government workers were forced to wear Islamic dress, women were banned from becoming judges, the legal age of marriage was reduced to 13, all aspects of public life were segregated and women were barred from attending regular schools. Exposure of any part of the body except for the hands and face is punishable by up to 70 lashes or 60 days imprisonment.

From the start of the Islamic Revolution women have been active in trying to bring about reform. The election of the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997 brought hope for significant change. The eleven women in the 270 seat Majlis tried to bring change to some of the most conservative laws, but during the next parliamentary elections they were all banned from running for office. The small gains they had made were all reversed during the following parliament.

Despite their marginalisation in elementary and secondary education, women in Iran are generally well-educated and the country boasts high literacy rates for the region at 70% for women and 83.5% for men. Many women pursue tertiary education, despite the government’s attempts to restrict their numbers in particular professions, including, surprisingly, gynaecology. Almost 60% of university students in Iran are women.

Whilst all freedom of expression is limited and subject to censorship in Iran, the situation is worse for women. In January 2008, Zanan, the only women’s magazine to be published in Iran was closed down as a “threat to the psychological security of the society”. The magazine had dealt with topics such as domestic abuse, sex, political reform, was critical of the Islamic legal code and had argued that gender equality was Islamic, but that religious literature had been misinterpreted and hi-jacked by misogynists. The One Million Signatures campaign, launched in 2006 to secure an end to legal discrimination against women in matters such as adult legal responsibility (9 years for girls), legal testimony (valued lower than a man’s) and damages payments (half that of men), includes many Iranian and external women’s rights campaigners, including Noble Laureates. During the campaign to collect signatures, women have been attacked and arrested, and four prominent members of the campaign have been jailed for contributing to banned websites.

The current regime remains strongly resistant to accepting women’s request for reform and equality. The protests which erupted over the rigged elections in 2009 made it clear how much discontent there is in Iran over the current political and social situation, particularly among young people. There will be further pressure both inside and outside of the country for reform in the wake of the uprisings across the region. Whether this can translate into regime change or significant reform is uncertain, yet the strength of Iran’s security forces will make any such uprising or revolution extremely difficult. Without major defections by the army, prominent ministers or members of the security forces themselves, there seems little hope of garnering sufficient momentum for internal regime change. Women in Iran will continue to seek reform, as they have for many years, and one can only hope that the increasingly fluid political situation in the region and the increasingly open discussion and process of constitutional reform will have an impact in Iran.

Kuwait, Jordan and Syria

So far as legal, social and political equality is concerned, Kuwait has made the most significant advances in women’s rights in the region. In Kuwait, women can drive, travel and work without male permission. In 2005 they were granted the right to vote and stand for election, and in 2009 they were granted the right to obtain passports without the consent of their father or husband. There are still many issues where women are discriminated against – in the religious family courts the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. Inheritance is governed by Islamic law and thus differs for women of Sunni or Shiite extraction. Yet, the fact that women can now take part in the political process and are not restricted from holding high office, places them in an excellent position to challenge these remaining prejudices, should they so wish.

The Kingdom of Jordan has made significant advances in granting greater rights and freedom to women, though there are still many social and legal restrictions in place. Jordan first gave women the right to vote as early as 1974 and to run for election, and women have made significant inroads so far as political representation is concerned, though their numbers are limited by a quota system. In the elections in November 2010, for which the quota was doubled, female representation in parliament leapt from 6 to 13 seats, including one victory outside of those seats allocated by the quota system. Still, however, they make up merely 10.8% of the legislature. The candidates campaigned on a broad range of issues, including ending corruption, creating jobs, increased accountability, economic and political change as well as improving women’s rights and political participation. Their numbers remain small, yet there is now considerable momentum in giving women access to political decision-making in the kingdom and in hearing their concerns and opinions.

There have also been rapid advances in female participation in important professions in Jordan, particularly in the legal profession. In 1996 there was only one female judge in the kingdom, compared to 48 at present. A majority of legal students in the country are now women, almost 60 percent. Women have legal protection from unfair dismissal in the case of pregnancy and are granted ten weeks paid maternity leave. Despite such advances, domestic violence and spousal rape remain widespread. As is the case in Tunisia, Jordan has legislated against honour killings of women, though this practice does still occur on rare occasions. Discrimination is still widespread on a day-to-day basis, but observers have reported a gradual shift in the attitudes towards women, largely due to their increased visibility in positions of authority.

Sadly, however, Syria has made considerably less progress in improving the rights of its people, particularly its women. This is hardly surprising considering that in Syria, Decree 121 bans organisations from working for women’s rights. As is the case right across the region, there are many women activists, but fear of legal persecution makes it difficult for them to organise. Women activists seeking reform have been denounced by clerics as atheists, traitors and blasphemers.

Women in Syria do have access to higher education and enjoy relatively high rates of employment. They make up a low, but regionally significant twelve percent of parliamentary seats and are prominent in the workforce, including constituting roughly 15% of employers.

However, women primarily face discrimination in personal matters, particularly with regard to property, marriage and divorce. There are also some glaringly discriminatory laws regarding criminal punishment for crimes against women. In Syria, if a man rapes a woman, he can avoid punishment by choosing to marry her, irrespective of whether or not she wishes to marry him.

Syria has a dreadful history of honour killings of women. The recent repeal of article 548 on the penal code, which allowed for this practice, is clearly a step forward, though men convicted of such a crime receive far lighter sentences than those convicted of other murders, hardly sending the right signals. Previous estimates suggest between 200 and 300 women were killed each year in this fashion, and legislation has not stopped the practice.

Syria, like many countries in the region, suffers from a general lack of human rights and protections in many spheres of society. There is little freedom of expression and police corruption and abuse are widespread. High levels of youth unemployment and the increasing cost of food make it rife for protest and rebellion, as was the case with Egypt, though this has not yet translated into full-scale popular protest. Whether this happens in the future or not depends on how the government of President Bashar-Al-Assad treads in the near future. Rapid change might fuel protests and add momentum, just as no change or very slow change might also increase frustration.


This discussion was not intended to be comprehensive, nor was it intended to explore in detail the entire region and its many complex problems. Discussion of Iraq, Algeria, Oman, the U.A.E. and Bahrain is notable by its absence. The principal intention here was to highlight broadly the different political, legal, economic and social status of women across the region to show just how much need there is for reform. I am happy to concede that I come at this issue as an outsider, an atheist, a feminist and a westerner, yet most if not all of the problems I have highlighted above are in clear contravention of internationally recognised conventions on human rights. Women in North Africa and the Middle East rarely have the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by men; they are denied equal economic opportunities, full political rights, freedom of expression, the right to choose their own partners, to travel freely, the right to express their chosen sexual orientation, the right to abortion, or the right to marry or divorce, and even, in some extreme cases, the right to drive. They can be corporally or capitally punished for acts as simple as communicating with an unrelated male. These simple everyday acts are designated “crimes” by men or male religious authorities, with little or no hope to prove otherwise or change the law. Where women have greater levels of freedom, they are discriminated against on account of their gender – bullied, sexually harassed, excluded, marginalised and disrespected as disrespectful for having the strength to protest against their oppression.

The international community helped force an end to Apartheid in South Africa on account of its laws segregating “Coloureds” and “Blacks”, yet Saudi women are denied many of the same rights. Why should women, according to their birthplace, have fewer basic rights than women in other countries? This is not a question of culture, it is not a question of tradition, it is, pure and simple, a question of discrimination and, in some cases, enslavement. I refuse to accept any form of discrimination or oppression under the guise of culture and would argue that western society, for all its flaws, is quite purely and simply better. Why? Because to a very great degree it allows freedom of expression, its judicial process seeks to enforce equality before the law, and its institutions are based on secular ideals, not an antiquated patriarchal moral code designed to control women’s bodies, gleaned from so-called holy books.

So, what hope is there for change across North Africa and the Middle East? Any significant change will require a major effort and the breaking of taboos. It will not be easy to achieve and may take a very long time. But when one considers the number of women who have been vocal in the protest movements across the region during the last two months, when one considers the scale of the youth cohort in any regional census, there is plenty of scope for more radical initiatives to be placed on the agenda. Alongside freedom of information, freedom of association and electoral freedom, the freedom of women to go where they please, study what they please, work where and when they please, have abortions if they please, marry and divorce who they please, talk with whom they please, drive if they please, and to have sexual relations with whom they please must also be considered. It took an extraordinarily long time for women to achieve these basic rights in the West, and it will not happen overnight, but with such a large youth population, the so-called Facebook generation, this is the best opportunity yet for a flowering of a broader liberalism in the Middle East. If the states of North Africa and the Middle East hope to realise the full potential of their polity, then they must accept that women be equal partners and players in the process and its continuity.

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