Friday, February 25, 2011

Gaddafi's people of mass destruction

With every passing day it is clearly evident that Col Muammar Gaddafi’s days are numbered. Yet Gaddafi refuses to step down. While the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt bowed down to the pro democracy protests, Gaddafi is still shouting threats at those standing against his regime. 

But this almost lunatic man whose recent speeches are more hilarious than fierce is no longer anything the famed dictator of Africa and the Arab world once was. Gaddafi holds no political office, yet he is the de facto head of Libya. And if Gaddafi goes, with him goes the many powerful men that operate out of the shadows.  

And it is these four main pillars that are propping up the frail Gaddafi to stand tall and be defiant. These are the leaders commanding forces to bring mass destruction in Libya.

1.   Abdullah al Senussi: Gaddafi’s brother in law and his most trusted and loyal aide, Senussi is believed to be the command behind the recent violence against protesters in Libya. A hardliner with a thuggish reputation, Senussi is the former head of the Jamahariya Security Organisation, which runs Libyan agents and has been suspected in several terrorist acts and human rights violations and even implicated in some including 440 deaths in two air disasters – Pan Am flight 103 and French UTA plane crash over Niger- and also in other terrorist acts. He is the head of military intelligence and number 2 on the protesters list to men to bring down.

2.   Khamis Gaddafi: Gaddafi’s son and a captain in the Libyan army, is the leader of the 32nd brigade, based in the Mediterranean city of Benghazi. Known for his ruthless ways, Khamis has allegedly recruited mercenaries from sub Saharan Africa to shoot live rounds at protestors in Benghazi. Khamis brigade attacked protesters controlling the town of Misrata. The violent clashes led to the death of many protesters and Khamis forces seem to be gaining control of Misrata.

3.   Mutassim Gaddafi: Gaddafi's fourth son was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Libyan army. He now serves as Libya's National Security Advisor and oversees the nation's National Security Council Mutassim is in command of the Tripoli crackdown. He used air force planes and helicopter gun ships and fired heavy machinery to scatter protestors. Mutassim ordered a vicious crackdown on protestors by his ‘Libyan Popular Army’ comprising of loyalists from the Saharan tribes raised by Gaddafi senior.

4.   Saif al- Islam Gaddafi: The second son of Gaddafi seemed like a ‘grey’ sheep (in the family of all black sheep) until it was discovered recently that he was actually the wolf in a sheep’s clothing. Saif al-Islam talked about democracy and modernization to win over the youth and the moderates in Libya and the West – an impression only dispelled in the televised interview he gave on behalf of his father, when he warned that Libya’s streets would run with “rivers of blood” if the protests continued. This left no shred of doubt that Saif al-Islam too is another Gaddafi and was grooming himself to be the political successor to his father.

People of mass destruction

Although some years ago Gaddafi promised to get rid of all weapons of mass destructions in an attempt at International diplomacy, he has armed himself with people of mass destruction. 

These are a number of special brigades in Libya which only answer to Gaddafi's Revolutionary Committees and not the army. The military is Libya, unlike Egypt, is weak, disorganized and not well trained. These paramilitaries also known as the ‘People's Militia’ are extremely loyal to Gaddafi and his Ahl al-Khaimah (People of the Tent) made upof his close comrades.

Mercenaries are also recruited by Gaddafi to attack Libyans with no remorse. Since mercenaries hold no ties to the land and are only recruited for a specific purpose, they have no qualms about firing at Libyans and there is no major threat of deflection.  

There are also many tribes in Libya and for years Gaddafi has played them against each other to maintain his supremacy. Gaddafi belongs to the Qadhaththa tribe and he has appointed many of its members to key positions in his regime. These tribal loyalists are being brought to other parts of the country and are being armed to attack the protesters. Saif al-Islam prediction of a civil war doesn’t seem very unlikely now.

Gaddafi's Amazonian Guards
What I’m sure would not be much help to prop up Qaddafi's image in these turbulent times are his Amazonian guards- his closest bodyguards comprising of 30-40 women (allegedly virgins) who are trained assassins and guard him 24/7. 

Since the protests broke out, there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Amazonian guards fired at the protesters. It would be interesting to see what role does this brigade plays when Gaddafi begins to lose a large number of his loyalists. Will they be sent to the frontline to combat the protesters or will they all be loaded in the plane that Gaddafi takes to leave Libya?!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ramblings of a Frightened Man

Muammar Gaddafi's media appearances are turning into a laughing matter. But little does the Libyan dictator of 42 years realize that the iron fist with which he ruled Libya is not generating fear anymore.

Yesterday, a Swiss radio station aired a human right watch spokesperson saying that Gaddafi has left Libya. Soon afterwards Gaddafi made a 6 second apprearance on state TV announcing his presence in Tripoli. Gaddafi is reported to have said: “I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.”
He blamed the rain for his brief appearance. Last week too he showed up briefly at a staged Gaddafi supporter demonstration in Tripoli, waving to his supporters from the sun roof of his car.

The International pressure on Gaddafi prompts him to make brief appearances on TV in a desperate attempt at putting on a 'power' show. 

Gaddafi has appeared on state TV as I'm writing this blog. Through twitter my friends from Libya translate his speech.

Since Tripoli is no longer safe for him with violent clashes on the street and state massacres pro democracy protesters, his speech on state TV seems to be shot in two locations with him a 'safe' place and his supporters crowd chanting his name from another place, says a tweet. The handshakes were allegedly staged too.

In his speech, Gaddafi says he has no intention of stepping down and he will 'die in Libya as a martyr'. He said 'he built Benghazi brick by brick'. He called his supporters to take to the street and shout, 'We sacrifice our blood and soul to you Gaddafi'.

He has called protesters 'rats' and 'cockroaches taking Libya back to the 50s'. He has promised death penalty to protesters and laughed at today's revolution saying that 'he makes revolutions and not these diseased rats!'

He has also called the pro democracy protests as 'armed seperatist rebellion'. His speech is a desperate attempt of power show but is failing miserably. While I read the tweets, I cannot help but feel that Gaddafi's is rambling like a 'mad man' that he is so often called by the protesters. My friends agree.

Here are some of his ramblings. I'm going to reproduce the tweets from Libya that literally translate his words.
"How are you diseased rats who take pills to begin a revolution! I make revolutions!" 'He's also being very generous, inviting the protesters to submit themselves and he will treat them from the pills.'

just said a man on a motorbike, who got away, caused all the problems in ! '

is complaining that electricity and all forms of communications have been cut!

: Go ahead and protest peacefully, support Nasser! Support Gaza, support Iraq

' now says Al Qaeda is establishing bases in thru Egyptian & Tunisian infiltrators selling drugs?'

': I have the millions of people and I have God by my side, who helped me win over ALL super power'

': I will "cleanse house by house" if protesters do not surrender'

Gaddafi's speech lasted for an hour and quarter and we have had some hilarious moments. He is today no doubt a shadow of the man he once was. His speech will unfortunately not have the desired effect he hoped for and nothing sums its better than these tweets from two of the proud Libyan pro democracy protestors. 

Libyan 1: 'He is trying to divide the country, but thats not going to happen. The unity is scaring him...'

Libyan 2: 'Ha Ha Ha... he is so scared, the sigh was enough proof. He has totally lost it. His end is near!'

The rise & fall of Col Muammar Gaddafi

A friend from Libya wrote on her twitter account today 'Once again people, there will NOT be a civil war! The Libyan people have one enemy and that's Gaddafi. Libya has never been this UNITED!'

This is the voice of the country who for decades did not feel a part of the outside world. She was one man's legacy, one man's mistress. But today she refuses to bow down to her 'master', refuses to obey his command and refuses to let him reign over her!

Libya has awakened from its long slumber and warns the world: 'Beware the wrath of the patient!'

Libya: A torchbearer

An independent Libya in 1951 was the torchbearer of its times. It was the first country in Africa to get independence from a European ruler. It was also the first country to achieve independence through the UN.

In 1951 it was proclaimed a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris, Libya's first and only monarch. It also saw the enactment of the Libyan constitution.

Yet, over the years the laurels turned into brickbats. In 1959 vast oil reserves were discovered and this money transformed Libya into one of the richest countries in the world; but also led to growing resentment among the masses as its benefits were reaped by only the wealthy few men of King Idris.

Same reason for Gaddafi's rise and fall
Gaddafi in 1969

This discontent led to Col Maummar Gaddafi gaining power in 1969. He was only 27 years old when he launched the Libyan revolution and staged a coup against King Idris on September 1, 1969. Before the end of the day, the monarchy was abolished and Gaddafi earned himself the title of 'Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution'. And since then Libya was ruled by the iron fist dictator Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi.

So its little surprising that the same discontent the masses felt way back in 1969 that led to Gaddafi's rise will once again be the reason for his fall in 2011. Gaddafi of all the people should understand this. But perhaps the 42 year rule has gone into his lead. He was the undisputed leader of Libya but he was not the leader of the people who for decades secretly wished he was gone and Libya was truly liberated.

Today, Libyans are fed up of the growing income disparity between the masses and the elite class comprising of Gaddafi's clan and men. There is a high rate of unemployment, poverty and marginalisation.

Protesters want a society based on equality and justice and Gaddafi represents everything they believe is wrong with Libya and he is definitely the biggest hindrance in Libya moving towards democracy.

Protesters show red to Gaddafi's Green Book

For over four decades, Libya political system followed Gaddafi's philosophy based on his Green Book, a combination of socialist and Islamic theories which gives Gaddafi supreme power to reign over Libya by controlling major government decisions. There is no parliamentary democracy and no political parties in Libya.

In 1977, Gaddafi established the General People's Congress (GPC) and claimed it represented the 'people's power'. He also changed the country's name to People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya yet people got no say in any matters. GPC did not have any 'ordinary people'.

Gaddafi holds no official position in the government today. All major positions of the GPC lie with a small group of trusted advisers of Gaddafi and include relatives from his home base in the Sirte region, which lies between the traditional commercial and political power centres in Benghazi and Tripoli. With the fall of Benghazi and the violent clashes in Tripoli, many of Gaddafi's men have deflected and joined the protesters.

But there is no doubt that Gaddfi's grip on Tripoli is weakening even with the bloodbath he has sanctioned on the streets with his men opening fire at protesters. Even military aircrafts are being used to drop small bombs and open fire at protesters. The death toll is fast rising although to confirm any figure is near impossible with the ban on foreign journalists in Libya and disruptions in Internet and telephone communications.

What will happen to the oil?

Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, so the political unrest is understandably a source of concern regarding production volumes and prices. The government (read Gaddafi) has complete control of the country's oil resources, which account for approximately 95% of export earnings and 25% of the gross domestic product.

Although oil revenues and a small population give Libya one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa but the ordinary man on the street can see it have no effect on his life.

The government has squandered the money and mismanaged it to such an extent that Libya faces a high inflation and lies on high priced imports.

So the threat of rising oil prices or firms pulling out of Libya will not silence any protests although they will pull the stock markets down. The protests which have now turned into a civil war have seen international oil companies and sub-contractors shut down oil production and evacuate staff. This could affect Libya crude oil supply for days to come if protests continue. 

An excellent reason for the world to lobby to put a stop to the brutal attacks by the state on protesters and support and 'peaceful transition' to democracy. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Next Egypt?

The world has erupted. Pro-democracy protests have spread faster than a forest fire engulfing nations that saw for decades oppression and corruption from authoritarian rulers.
While Tunisia ignited the torch, Egypt took it forward and President Hosni Mubarak's resignation gave the hope to millions of citizens worldwide that they too could bring about change in their country by simply believing in the power of the people's movement. 

The world looks on as Egypt celebrates its victory today with two million people in Tahrir Square (in pic above), the people's seat that toppled the President. While the mood was festive, Egyptians do realize they have a long way to go to get the military to honour its promises and deliver change.

But following Egypt's historic victory against its oppresive regime, hundreds and thousands took to the streets in their own countries. The respective governments too stepped up opposition and, unlike Egypt, turned the police and army against the people. 

While for many countries achieving Egypt's success in such a short span of time might be difficult, I believe Bahrain. Libya and Yemen would be at the forefront of demanding change and will unfortunately see much more violence than Egypt. 

While Bahrain may see days of comparatively peaceful protests next week with sporadic incidences of violence, Libya will definitely erupt and see much more violence over the weekend. Yemen is just finding its feet in pro democracy protests and though Saleh has taken a backstep by offering to step down at the end of the term, Yeminis will not be satisfied until they see him leave soon.

Bahrain - Burning in Protests
Bahrain is seeing one of the most violent protests of the recent days. The people from this  tiny country in the Gulf have decided to stand up against the monarchy and are demanding a more equal and just society. 

About 70 percent of Bahrain's citizens are Shiite Muslims. Though Bahrain is one of the few Gulf nation's with a popularly elected parliament, the main powers still rest in the hands of the Sunni monarchy which decides important political and military posts.

So protesters have taken to the streets demanding an end to these powers of the monarchy. Clashes and protests have occurred sporadically over the past few days. Security forces in Bahrain have dispersed thousands of anti-government protesters in Pearl Square in the centre of the capital, Manama using tear gas and batons. There are now police with tanks reported on some streets. Bahraini security forces have also opened fire on anti-government protesters killing an injuring many.

The heavy police and military presence in the capital Manama is ensuring that more protesters are not allowed entry in the capital. Funerals of those killed in the clashes are taking place across the country.

Amnesty International has strongly condemned these acts of violence by the state. 'Respect for human rights in Bahrain has deteriorated significantly in the past year in the face of growing anti-government sentiment and violent protests,' it says in its latest report 'Crackdown in Bahrain: Human Rights at the Crossroads', which speaks about gross human rights violations by the Bahraini government.

Libya - Day of Rage
Libya's 'Day of Rage' found snipers fire at protesters from rooftops. The longest ruling dictator Col. Maummar al-Gaddafi's left no stone unturned to turn his rage on the people protesting against his rule. 

His regime turned its helicopter gunships and snipers on protesters, killing and injuring many of them. According to Human Rights Watch at least 24 people have been killed by Libyan security forces though officially Libya has issued no casualty figures.

Reports on social network sites say up to 50 people have been killed in protests in several Libyan cities. Libyan are flocking to facebook and twitter to join the anti-government movement

The protestors refuse to succumb and are first concentrating on towns that have weaker support for Gaddafi like in the east, including its second largest city, Benghazi. The area is largely cut-off from international media.

Also mobile phone networks in Libya are now being used by the regime for sending messages from 'the youth of Libya' warning against crossing 'four red lines: Maummar Gadhafi, territorial integrity, Islam and internal security'.

Although the European Union has urged Libyan authorities to allow free expression and listen to what the protesters have to say, the Libyan leader believes in pretending that discontent doesn't exist in Libya. Gaddafi says Libyans enjoy 'true democracy'.

So while his country is burning in other parts, he decides to put a show of strength. State television showed several hundred pro-government supporters holding a rally in Tripoli's Green Square before dawn. As Gaddafi arrived, he stood up through the sunroof of his limousine and waved to the crowd.

The Gaddafi family's billionaire lifestyle and playboy reputation is a liability in a region where unemployment and corruption are widespread. The protesters demand political freedoms, respect for human rights and an end to corruption and are refusing to bow down. 

Yemen - 'Friday of Rage'
Riots have flared up in Yemen after eight days of protests where protesters are calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A key US ally and a ruler for 32 years, Saleh is already facing threats from al Qaida militants who want him out, a southern secessionist movement and an erratic armed rebellion in the north.

Facebook and twitter were used to garner support for the 'Friday of Rage' and tens of thousands responded in the capital Sanaa, Aden and Taiz. Anti-government demonstrators clashed with supporters of Saleh and police, who fired tear gas and shots in the air to disperse the crowd. 

In the city of Taiz, a hand grenade was allegedly thrown at a group of protesters causing a blast and a stampede. Riots also flared up in the southern port of Aden where cars and a local government building were set ablaze.

Eyewitnesses in Sana’a told Amnesty International that they had been surrounded and attacked by security forces and 'thugs'.“We are trying to hide but the security forces are pointing out our locations to the thugs. We are very scared, particularly because there are children with us. We’ve tried to get the children out of the area but the security forces have not allowed us to do so,” one activist told Amnesty International today.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dial 1-800-Tahrir Square

President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 18 days of pro-democracy protests in Egypt. It is a momentous occasion for not just the Egyptians but the world at large because it ushers the beginning of a new era- where people power can topple down even the most autocratic of the regimes.
US President Barack Obama rightly said, "The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same."
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, called this a 'do-it-yourself' revolution. 'It means that anyone in the neighbourhood can copy it by dialling 1-800-Tahrir Square', he said. He asked Egypt's neighbours especially Libya to watch out.
But it's not just Libya (though Muammar el-Qaddafi is one of the worst authoritarian rulers of the land) that needs to watch out, protests have already erupted across the region with Algeria, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and even Iran being engulfed in the fire of Liberalisation.
Egypt revolution has confirmed today that people can triumph in times of adversity if they stand tall and refuse to give in. Mubarak's resignation has only served as a catalyst, the real test is to see democracy finally prevail in the region.
The road ahead is not easy and the people of Egypt cannot stop now. The world is looking at Egypt to see if this formula works. If it does, then very soon every nation facing oppression, corruption and dictatorship will find its citizens dial '1-800- Tahrir Square.'

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A referendum for Darfur?

This week the results of Sudan's historic referendum were announced showing a turnout of 97 percent with 98.83 percent of voters in favour of the region becoming independent. It was a huge achievement not just for south Sudan but also for the US diplomacy, which played a significant role in getting the government to accept the referendum. 

But while all eyes were glued on the referendum, what seemed to be ignored was the growing humanitarian crisis in Darfur as Khartoum increased its offensive there.

The Darfur crisis began in 2003 when guerilla fighting between the government and rebel groups began on a large scale (mostly based on ethnicity) and since then at least five million civilians have been forced to leave their villages. They have moved to displacement camps or fled to eastern Chad. There are also allegations that the Chadian national army and armed groups are employing these ‘displaced’ children to fight their war.

White House recently released a footage West Wing Week: "Dispatches from Sudan" of the situation in Sudan including Darfur as they traveled with the President's Special Envoy, General Scott Gration. One of their objectives was to 'inspect conditions in Darfur and learn about the commitment of the United States to peace in this region after decades of civil war'. In a town called Deribat in the Jebel Marra Mountains, this is what they found...

'The government of Sudan retook this town from rebels recently, a step the government hoped would lead to greater feelings of security among the populace, but we arrived to find an army garrison guarding an empty town. Homes and businesses abandoned, the air eerily quiet.'

Soon, the US officials found themselves answering uncomfortable questions, but this shouldn't be a surprise to the them as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been talking about state atrocities in the region since December. Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebels have used Jebel Marra as a base throughout the Darfur conflict.

The HRW says, ‘in the first week of October government forces bombed numerous villages on the road from Deribat to Soni, in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, destroying hundreds of homes. Government troops in the area have also prevented civilians from returning to their farms'. These civilians have fled to rebel controlled areas that are beyond the aid agencies reach. 

Also the UNAMID (United Nations-African Union mission) reports that over 40,000 people were newly displaced in December alone from Dar es Salem, Shangil Tobaya and Khor Abeche in eastern Dafur. The displaced population relies heavily on international aid to survive. 

Children from Goz Mino run from a UN Helicopter (just landed in an official visit) to attend the school. Goz Mino (West Darfur) has 550 housholds, some of them just returned from Chadian refugee camps. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID
However, according to the Institute of War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), the conditions in Internallt Displaced People (IDP) camps are detriorating with the state consistently delaying food and medical supplies to them. They have also put restrictions on relief workers and peacekeepers. So these agencies are scared to stand up to the government for fear of explusion.

Also the government has made it almost impossible for foreign journalists to get there and if some do they too face tight restrictions. Hence news from Darfur is scarce and hardly makes it on mainstream media anymore.

But a recent report by Tufts University makes a shocking conclusion. It says the population in Darfur is ‘more vulnerable now’ (than at any time since 2003 when the massacres were at its peak) due to impaired relief efforts.

But while south Sudan has sealed its right to independence through the referendum, Darfur is still awaiting the international diplomats to find a solution for its crisis.
While two rebel groups- the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Liberty and Justice Movement (LJM) agreed for talks in January, just yesterday Minni Minnawi (in pic), the leader of the more dominant SLA, urged all the armed movements to step up their struggle against the government. The rebels feel such talks do not address the root causes of the conflict, including political marginalization and refugees. 

Today Qatari state minister for foreign affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud meets the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and other officials to discuss the Darfur peace process.

Perhaps Khartoum could agree to a referendum in which the people from Darfur could decide their future?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Iraq's REAL prisoners of war

When the US-led coalition attacked Iraq they promised to make it a better place, they promised to put an end to Saddam Hussain's tyranny and his gross human rights violations. But did the Iraq war make the country a better place or simply let the systemic torture and injustice continue with just a different figurehead?

After the US-led invasion and the toppling of Saddam's regime, the coalition along with Iraqi forces picked up thousands of people including women and put them behind bars in secret locations without any charge or trial. Even with a democratic Iraq now, the stories of Iraq's 'secret' prisons are deafening.  

According to an Amnesty International (AI) report released today, in Iraq there have been 'widespread abuse of detainees committed with impunity'. At least 30,000 people are detained in secret prisons across Iraq without any charges. These men and women are held incommunicado and have no access to lawyers. Torture and ill treatment are  commonplace.

What is worse is that the Iraqi forces use torture to get a forced 'confession' out of the detainees and then put them through unfair trials.  The Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) often convicts defendants on the basis of these 'confessions', ignoring any pleas of torture even with clear evidence in many cases. The result: 1300 prisoners are on the death row!  

Iraqi prisoner seen at al-Muthanna prison in Baghdad, Iraq in May 2010. Human Rights Watch says this 'secret' detention facility was operated by elite forces controlled by the military office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (AP Photo)
 In April 2010, when the Iraqi authorities released 95 detainees from the old Muthanna airport prison, all of them were traumatised and had horror stories to tell. One detainee told AI, “We [father and son] were tortured in the same manner: suspension from a bed upside-down, suffocation by putting plastic bags on our heads, beatings, use of electric shocks on various parts of the body... After that I confessed. I confessed to things I never knew what they were.”

Another detainee explained the guard's popular method of torture called 'oxygen'- 'The most horrible method is asphyxiation by plastic bag. You don’t last for more than 5 or 10 seconds and you start running out of breath. Then you are basically forced to say I will confess and sign anything you want me to sign.'

In early 2009, human rights organisations warned the US  forces, during the transfer of detainees to Iraqi authorities that these prisoners would be at grave risk of torture in Iraqi-run prisons if rigorous safeguards were not implemented. The US government ignored it.

Perhaps not surprising, after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2004, when reports of prisoner abuse by US soldiers including torture, rape, sodomy, homicide etc came into the public glare. Soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion were charged with these crimes and further investigations were ordered to save face but with few results.

Documents released by WikiLeaks in October 2010 show that the US troops allegedly abused prisoners for years even after the Abu Ghraib scandal and that the US ignored systemic abuse, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers. In one instance, a leaked document describes instances of Iraqi soldiers urinating, jumping, and spitting upon a detainee. 

A review of the leaked documents reveal more than 1,000 allegations of abuse committed by Iraqi security forces. Hundreds of them are supported by medical evidence and other corroboration. These reports demonstrate a clear pattern of abuse and torture in Iraqi jails, one that a high-level Pentagon directive barred US forces from investigating saying, 'due to no allegation or evidence of US involvement, a US investigation is not being initiated.' So much for securing democracy in Iraq!

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that '303 allegations of abuse by coalition forces were reported in the military files after 2004'. So when the protector of people turn into savage beast, then where do you go to seek justice?

Ramze Ahmed has been detained in Iraq
 This is what Rahiba al-Qassab is asking on the eve of her husband's Ramze Shihab Ahmed trial.  Ramze, a British citizen, went to Iraq from his home in the UK in November 2009 to try to secure the release of his son, who had been detained two months earlier. He was first held in an the secret al-Muthanna prison between December 2009 and April 2010 and then moved to al-Rusafa prison. 

His family has no idea of his whereabouts until 25 March 2010 when he managed to call his wife from prison. Ramze  too alleges that he been repeatedly tortured. He was held without charge for a year but has recently been charged under Anti terror legislation. It may attract a death sentence.  

His trial will probably be a test to gauge if the 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' simply gave the Iraqi forces freedom to carry atrocities or has liberated the country enough to put an end to an unjust judicial system.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why China won't be the next Egypt, yet!

The year of the rabbit brought out the dark traits of this rather timid animal in the Chinese government soon after protests erupted in Egypt. According to one analysis of the Chinese zodiac sign; 'at his worst, the Rabbit is too imaginative, oversensitive or just acidly indifferent. He avoids coming into contact with human suffering or misery, as though it were some highly contagious disease.'
And it seems that exactly what the high profile Publicity/Propaganda department  (PD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) is doing today - distancing itself from human suffering in Egypt for fear it might be contagious.
While twitter, face book and you tube are banned in China since 2009, the Chinese youth have found ways of breaking through firewalls and accessing them. In cyber cafes in Chongqing, I noticed how some teenagers used proxy sites to access everything that was supposedly off limits. 'It's not that difficult if you know where to go to access it,' a young girl with pink highlights and piercings told a friend in Cantonese. She is particularly curious about life outside China and enjoys meeting people from the West. There are millions of such people across China keen to connect with the 'outside' world.
China also home grown versions of twitter like Sina Weibo which are very popular. But now searching for 'Egypt/Cairo' etc now bring up a message: “according to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results have not been displayed”.
The Communist Party, just  like the rabbit, 'may assume an outer air of indifference to the opinions of others, but he actually withers under criticism'. Hence they maintain a very strong hold on what gets published in the media and in a way direct any discussion on what they seem 'appropriate'. Of course, it's not appropriate to talk about people's protests, democracy, bringing down the rule of the land etc and the government will do everything it can to prevent even the air of defiance reach the Chinese people.
So journalist friends in China tell me that the government has 'ordered' the Chinese media to only carry news sent by Xinhua (official news agency) which is well screened and sometimes even written by the PD ensuring its reports are 'safe' for the people to know.
China daily, one of the country's largest English daily only carries dispatches from Xinhua. One such today, highlights how the Egyptian government was trying to restore calm and economic life in Cairo but protestors refused to listen. I have been told that PD stresses the need to carry reports on the livelihood lost and other economic losses in Egypt due to these protests. With a large income disparity in China and with millions of people under the poverty line, the PD probably believes that such reports would nip any thoughts of rebellion in the bud.
 Another 'approved' report is the government efforts to bring back stranded Chinese tourists. Newspapers and television stations have been warned that any sympathy with the protestors in Egypt will not be tolerated and news of any rebellious feelings in China a total taboo. As always these instructions are 'secret' but it is no secret in China who controls the media.
As a foreign journalist I met many officials in China who have steered that same line. They speak about an 'open' media yet they keep a short leash on what comes out in the main Chinese media. While they cannot stifle the voices of foreign journalist they do try their best to keep them to the minimum.
However, what I do find striking in China is the huge population of people that support the government, adhere to their communist principles and strongly believe that the government cares for them when they look at the high growth and economic progress China had made in recent years. It has fuelled expectations yet creating huge disparities in its population.  

I do think that government does care for 'its people' but only when they know it  is good for them. I was quite pleased with the quick response of the government during the Sichuan earthquake a couple of years ago. The officials in Beijing were forthcoming with their responses and put no restrictions on what I reported. It was a natural tragedy and the government were looked upon as saviour of people then and they did their bit to prove it right.
Yet I saw them often tight lipped and rather ruthless during the Tibetans protests. The ethnic divide in China is strong and only people of the ethnic majority Han hold their unnerving loyalties to the government. Ethnic minorities are still struggling to trust the government. Earlier too, in 2009 after the ethnic clashes in Xinjiang, the government ensured that for months there was no use of the internet and people were unable to make international calls or send text messages. They wanted to isolate Xinjiang and prevent the news of atrocities from reaching the outside world.
The PD is so powerful in China that it can edit and censor even the speeches made by its Premier. Wen Jiabao comments on 'political reforms'  in his speech during a visit to the United States in 2010 were censored and omitted from every media report in China.
Also when Chairman Mao's personal secretary and a former member of the CPC's Central Committee, Li Rui called for China to allow free speech and to abolish state control of the media, little did he realize that an essay that he had written for the People's Daily (China's party newspaper) in 1981, had been deleted from a recent book by the PD.
So anyone who calls for political reforms finds himself face the PD's axe. When these 'powerful' men of China cannot speak about political reforms, what hope do the people have?
Also the memory of Tiananmen square is still alive. In 1989, several hundred civilians mostly students were shot dead by the Chinese army during protests for democracy. It's been over two decades, yet when you walk down Tiananmen square, the story still haunts you. You would occasionally catch a glimpse of an old man holding onto the Chinese flag paying tribute to lives lost in muted silence. You still cannot raise a voice in China for fear of a repetition.
I hope it may be possible for the winds of change to someday soon penetrate the great firewall of China and empower its people to stand up for political reforms. Yet, I'm afraid it won't happen too soon.
China and Egypt (with Tunisia) are excellent examples to understand Thomas Jefferson  words:  'When the people fear their government- there is tyranny; when the government fears the people- there is liberty.'

More on China on

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Who will the Military choose - President or People?

There is no doubt today that Egypt's army is responsible for letting the clashes and violence on the streets accelerate as they watched as muted spectators the bloodshed and gross human rights violations taking place everywhere in Egypt.

But this is not knew, its only that the world can now watch it live during the protests and through various messages coming out of Egypt on twitter and face-book. While the anti Mubarak protests have largely been peaceful, violence only erupted when the pro Mubarak gang took to the streets sheltered behind the army tanks. Lives were lost and fear spread, yet the protests continue.

Earlier when the military refused to use force on protesters, it seemed like they deserted Mubarak yet when they refused to intervene when the pro Mubarak gang clashed with the protesters, they sent mixed signals. The military yet refuses to take sides but they are the most important factor in determining where Egypt is moving.

Mubark ensured that his deputy and prime minister were both military personnel and has surrounded himself with armed forces personnel in the cabinet and other positions of power. The military could be hesitant to remove one of their own - Mubarak who served them as a commander longer than as a President- from power, yet they would still like to maintain their image of the protector of the Egyptians and want the public to respect them.

The next course of action depends entirely on which way the military moves and it seems the Obama administration is in talk with them to find a possible solution for a transitional government so that Mubarak maybe forced to step down now with as much dignity as possible. 

Even the Iranian Army Lieutenant Commander General Seyed Abdolrahim Mousavi urged the Egyptian army to deflect to the protesters side and bring an end to Mubarak's rule.

Yemen, now bracing itself for similar protests, is learning from Egypt's lessons. Even though as a pre-emptive measure President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised not to re-contest elections, people have lost faith in him to conduct fair elections and bring political reforms.

Saleh's relatives hold high profile positions in the security forces, own major businesses and land holdings, making them highly powerful and influential. If similar protests broke out on the streets of Sana'a, the army could stand against the people. There could be not just another Tahrir square violence but a Tiananmen Square massacre. 

It comes as no surprise that leaders of the opposition have called on Saleh to sack his son Ahmed Ali from the leadership of the republican guards and other relatives that occupy high positions in security and military forces in Yemen.

Just like every president used the military to strengthen its power; the people too have realized that in order to bring down the president, it is important to have the military on their side. All eyes are on Egypt to see who the military chooses.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mubarak's day of depature? Perhaps not!

Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak survived six assassination attempts but surviving the people’s protests now seems impossible.

But will Mubarak quietly go? Perhaps not if his interview to ABC’s Christine Amanpour yesterday is anything to go by; Amanpour says Mubarak told her that if he steps down now, there would be ‘chaos’.  So what exactly is happening on Egypt’s streets that do not qualify as chaos? Mubarak chose Amanpour as a vehicle to convey, once again, that he has no intention to leave in a hurry.

But with the protesters not backing down, he may well have to be arm twisted by the Obama administration into leaving his post immediately and handling over power to a transitional government headed by his deputy Omar Suleiman, who has also told reporters he would not seek re-elections.

While both the deputy and the president himself have maintained that Mubarak will not flee Egypt like Tunisia’s President Ben Ali, it would be interesting to see if a sudden ‘medical’ condition arises that require the 82 year old Mubarak to ‘leave Egypt for treatment’, perhaps to Israel. He could return eventually and like in recent years spend much of his time away from Cairo, at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

This would probably be the best and the least violent way to calm the situation in Egypt and save face. With the opposition refusing to engage in talks while Mubarak sits in office, it would be difficult for the government to justify an ‘orderly transition’ to political reform. Their excuse that dethroning Mubarak could lead to chaos is no longer working. The only way the protests would subside is with Mubarak resigning if not today, then at a defined date in the next few days.

However if no assurances are given today and another round of pro Mubarak hooligans infiltrate Tahrir Square, what we might see is large scale violence and a bloodbath. And the pro Mubarak supporters with the backing of the armed forces could turn Tahrir square into another Tiananmen Square.

Eventually the world leaders will have to accept that the violence received state sanction and this might force US to suspend its annual military aid to Egypt (over £800m), a huge blow to Egypt’s military might. The fear of which could affect their loyalty to Mubarak. Without the might of the armed forces behind him Mubarak would be a frail shadow of himself.
If the protests today are largely peaceful, both Mubarak and the world leaders can catch a quick breath before the next round begins.

Mubarak, one of the world’s top 20 worst dictators, has been the longest serving president of Egypt- now in its 30th year. But the clock is fast ticking and Mubarak knows his time is up.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Arab world finds its voice

First Tunisia, now Egypt, will the Arab world finally see democracy? It’s perhaps too early to predict a true democracy in these countries. However what is evident is that the people have finally found their voice and it’s now loud enough to not just to penetrate the thick walls of the Presidential mansions but also shake its foundations.

We have heard every politician talk about change yet once in power the status quo continues. But now, people have decided to take power in their hands and bring about the change for real. And millions of people are taking to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations to raise their voice for the basic economic security– growth, employment, education, control on inflation and affordable food. But they have now realized that the only way to get these would be to speak from some sort of political platform – and the idea of democracy looks perfect. Hence the demand for political reforms.

After the revolution, Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country and it gave people elsewhere a hope. Now Egypt’s president Hoshi Mubarak has promised to step down at the end of term in September. This made the hope stronger.

The protesters in Egypt are not too happy to wait and believe they may be able to force Mubarak to leave now. While clashes continue on the streets of Cairo, the world sits watching transfixed. Everyone knows the Arab world would never be the same again.

Meanwhile fearing a similar revolution both Jordan and Yemen took pre-emptive measures to stop the initial protests from turning into a mass revolution.

Jordan: ‘Increase popular participation in the decision-making’

On February 1, King Abdullah of Jordan dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister "to take practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms, enhance Jordan's democratic drive and ensure safe and decent living for all Jordanians".

The government recently announced a £78m ($125m) package to reduce prices, as well as measures to boost salaries, in an attempt to ease the protests. However the opposition, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), said it did not welcome PM Marouf Bakhit appointment. However, there still seems to be respect in the opposition for King Abdullah.

The Palace reciprocated this sentiment by promising more people’s participation in decision making. “Reform was a "necessity to provide a better life for our people, but we won't be able to attain that without real political reforms, which must increase popular participation in the decision-making", the statement from the palace. 

Yemen: ‘No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock’

Unlike Jordon, people in Yemen strongly want the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years. Fearing backlash,  Saleh on February 2, announced that he would neither seek another term nor hand over his seat to his son. With a bold statement, "No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock," Saleh hoped to disperse his protesters but they went ahead with their so called 'day of rage' which was very peaceful compared to clashes in Egypt.
Like Jordon’s king, Saleh too came up with an economic package that he hoped would calm his protesters. He put a control on basic commodity prices and cut income tax in half. To ensure loyalty from the security forces and his men, Saleh doubled the salaries of state employee and armed forces personnel. However, it hasn’t been enough to suppress the agitated sentiments of his people.

Today Sana'a sees some of the biggest anti-government protests against Saleh (even though yesterday he asked for a freeze on all planned protests). Other cities in Yemen too joined in the protests. 

In step – Algeria, Libya and Morocco 

Governments of Algeria, Libya and Morocco can feel the tremors of the revolution and are strengthening their stand by offering economic concessions.

In Algeria, although public demonstrations are banned in the capital Algiers, following Tunisia, there were public protests in many parts of Algeria including the capital. Several opposition groups in Algeria have called for mass protests in the Algiers on Saturday February 12. On the agenda apart from lifting the emergency is the end to the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and bringing political and economic reforms. Algeria has seen one of the worst civil wars in the world and the public are wary of a repetition, yet the growing momentum in the region is helping the mobilization of people to demand change.

Morocco, like Tunisia, saw the Royal family ‘exposed’ by Wikileaks. King Mohammed VI inner circle were embroiled in allegations of increased corruption. However, Morocco has so far managed to keep protests under control.

A quick announcement last week by the authorities that they would maintain subsidies on basic necessities like flour, sugar, cooking oil and butane gas to stop costs rising in line with world prices was an attempt to nip any uprising in the bud. However opposition to the Royal family is slowly mobilizing.

Libya has seen one of the most autocratic rulers for over four decades Col Muamman Gaddafi emphatically supported Tunisia’s Ben Ali. One of the strictest countries to tolerate any kind of protests, Libya has in recent days seen some unrest in Benghazi in the east. The government quickly took pre-emptive steps and announced increased spending on public housing to discourage people from protesting.

However, a website (now banned by the government) began promoting protests on February 17, anniversary of previous ‘intifada’.

Syria takes the revolution on Face book 

The Baath party has been in power in Syria since it passed a 1963 emergency law banning all opposition groups. President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez. Although his tough stance against Israel has earned him popularity; the growing economic disparity and rising poverty coupled with unemployment and corruption in the country has turned the people against the government.

While the government claims Syria is immune to an uprising, Syrian activists are calling for ‘a day of rage’ on Friday after prayers on Face book which is officially banned in Syria. Another Face book group has called for a peaceful '2011 Syrian revolution' to end Syria's 'monocracy, corruption and tyranny.'

The next few days will be crucial and could create history.