Egypt - A Fire That Will Burn Us All

On Wednesday, I watched aerial footage of Egypt on fire. The bright orange flames in the urban jungle of Cairo reminded me of wild fires on National Geographic. Only here it was buildings, houses, cars, offices, police stations, government buildings, and churches that were ablaze.

From the helicopter that shot the video, I could discern some buildings I recognized. What I couldn't tell however, was what political affiliation their inhabitants are. I couldn't hear what their dinner conversation about politics is like. I squinted hard but still couldn't figure out who they voted for in the last elections.

I always liked this quote from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who in 1974 reflected on how he felt looking at earth from outer space: 

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'

A quarter million miles might be unnecessary for feeling that way about Egyptian politicians. A few kilometers, just enough so they can see the fire eating up the country both literally and figuratively, is sufficient.

They say truth is the first casualty of war. Rationality, apparently, is a sacrifice made early.

The solution can only be political. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership fully realizes Morsy's presidency will not be restored. Yet their supporters and militias continue to chant that tune, in the hope of improving their bargaining position. The stellar rise in violence in the ranks of Morsy's supporters makes it almost impossible to defend them -- when they attack and set fire to houses of worship, offices, subway stations, clashing with inhabitants and with the police with heavy weaponry.

The army leadership, too, both in its capacity of army and government -- let's not begin to pretend we have anything that resembles civilian decision-making at this point -- should know that brute force doesn't disperse a large sit-in: it merely displaces it, galvanizes it, radicalizes it; it potentially gives it more support from otherwise undecided people. It offers direct support, by validating their confrontational position, to the most radical elements within it.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to describe Egypt's new rulers as operating according to Likud principles. Just like the Israeli conservatives, the Egyptian military is viewing all national interests through the narrow prism of security. Major decisions are taken by police and army generals -- both unaccountable and with blood on their hands. They are further rapidly re-establishing the reign of violence and unaccountability of the Mubarak regime, with former state security officials being reinstated and trying civilians in military courts as we speak.

Every bad decision that could be taken has; everything that can go wrong is.

I want to write the names of over 600 -- perhaps 700, by the time I finish this article -- people who were killed this week, including unarmed protesters, armed ones, police officers, journalists. Some of the dead had their names and address written with a marker on the chest, to avoid being merely a number in a morgue. At the least it will save their families the anguish for lack of news.

I want to write about the mosques that have been used as morgues, the stench of death covering the habitual smell of incense, and the crimson pools of blood accumulating on the worn prayer rugs.

I want to tell you about the churches that have been ransacked and set on fire in Egypt, the hardly unexpected culmination of anti-Christian rhetoric in the discourse of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They ultimately become a soft target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters seeking for revenge. They are scarcely, if at all, protected by the police force. This makes security forces automatically complicit in attacks against them.

The implications are huge and will stay with us for years to come. An increasing number of people are getting emotionally if not physically sucked into the political fight, as they suffer from the violence or its threat, as they lose close friends or even distant acquaintances, as they endure road closures or curfews. Between friends, coworkers, within each family even, the chasm is widening.

Reconciliation becomes increasingly difficult as interests are obscured; buried under political posturing, narrow interests, and more frightfully, vengeful impulses.

The leaders of both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood should be taken into orbit so they can see with some distance what their actions are reaping.

Or perhaps they should be left there.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here


Democracy Lab

Who's Really In Control of Libya's Guns?

More than a thousand armed vehicles filled with troops arrived in Tripoli last week. The forces were ordered into the Libyan capital by Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), signaling the start of a major push to secure the city in light of the worsening security situation.

The troops, who are members of Libya Shield (a security force designed to bring Libya's fractious militias into a single force under government control), vowed support for the new chief of staff's initiatives to improve security in the cities and rebuild a strong national army. At first glance this would seem to be good news. In reality, though, Libya now finds itself with four armies, all sanctioned by the government and nominally under government control. In fact, however, all of them have conflicting agendas.

The first army is commanded by the army chief of staff. It consists of Libya Shield militias, and its power base is in Misrata. The second is subordinate to the minister of defense. Established by former minister Osama al-Juwali, its power base is in Zintan, and it controls some of the most powerful militias in Tripoli. The third is the Border Control Army. It has its own commander and budget and is resisting any calls to integrate under the chief of staff's command, insisting on its autonomy. The fourth force is the Barqa Army, viewed by many as the armed wing of the Cyrenaica Council, which is calling for autonomy for the country's oil-rich east. Attempts by the government to tame these factions have met with mixed success. Each of these groups views the others with suspicion, and there have been no serious efforts to coordinate their efforts.

The deployment of Libya Shield forces comes as violence in Libya is escalating. Tripoli and its surrounding areas have experienced a number of recent attacks on military installations that saw weapons and military equipment stolen by armed groups. Some commentators say that the attacks revealed a high degree of coordination. Alarms were raised by the GNC president, who implied that a coup against the GNC was in the offing. GNC officials let it be known that the coup was likely to be orchestrated and staged by remnants of Qaddafi's army and their sympathizers, in emulation of last month's overthrow of President Morsy in Egypt. Abusahmain was nominated and supported for the GNC presidency by the Islamist blocs within the legislature after Mohamed Magariaf resigned due to the controversial political isolation law. The law was pushed through by the Islamists with the help of Libya Shield militias that besieged government ministries and pressured politicians to pass the law (yes, the same Libya Shield that is now being used to secure Tripoli). In this respect, the deployment of Libya Shield forces can be seen as a pre-emptive attempt to safeguard the Islamists' influence and control over the capital Tripoli with the help of their allies in Misrata.

The decision to deploy Libya Shield forces in Tripoli was taken over the Eid al-Fitr holidays. GNC President Abu Sahmain took the decision without consultation with the legislature or the government, which has spooked some lawmakers and officials. Now, according to official GNC spokesman Omar Hmaidan, some lawmakers are insisting that Abusahmain submit to questioning about his actions. Hmaidan went so far as to declare the GNC president as unconstitutional and illegitimate. The decision by Abusahmain comes after increasing calls for the dismissal of the GNC and the dissolution of political parties, due to the widely held view that political infighting between political parties is the main reason for polarization and instability in the country.

The deployment of the Libya Shield forces in Tripoli underlines the fragile security situation in the country and the increasing polarization among political factions. It also shows how the different factions are using armed groups to protect their political interests in the face of growing instability and the potential for the collapse of the post-revolutionary political establishment. Many Libyans do indeed blame political infighting within GNC for the deteriorating security situation and the heightening of tensions.

Most Libyans have clearly expressed their opposition to the existence of armed militias and refuse to accept anything short of a national army and police force. Still, the deteriorating security situation has warranted urgent measures to establish control by relying on Libya Shield militias. It's entirely possible, though, that these militias could turn their back on the government, either to ask for more money or to pressure the government into adopting certain laws that benefit them and their political backers. The reliance of militias will also continue to erode Libya's finances through the huge payouts given to the militia members and delay any real effort to rebuild Libya's security and defense sectors.

In post-revolution Libya, the politicians are playing a dangerous game by politicizing the security establishment. Right now security institutions in the country are plagued by factionalism and political polarization. Given the widening regional and political mistrust, it's hard to see how the existing security and defense forces can ever be developed into a viable national force.