The UN-sanctioned military action against Colonel Gaddafi's forces has begun. What we're going to see is a rolling back of his troops all the way back to Tripoli, or to possibly Sirte, ie the area of historical Tripolitania. Meanwhile the rebel army will be tasked with the chore of proving its mettle, something it has yet to do.
I'm not sure exactly what's happening on the ground. Yesterday we were told that Gaddafi troops were fighting their way into Benghazi, yet the Americans said they were 160 km away.
I never saw any proof of mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi and talk of that has died down.
Right now the situation looks a lot like the old Ottoman vilayets of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
It is up to the rebels to prove they're not a rabble. Or worse.
The anti-Gaddafi camp must now prove its mettle and make use of the military imbalance that has shifted in its favor.
Meanwhile Tripoli broadcast 2 audio-only speeches by Muammar al-Gaddafi after the beginning of the bombing campaign against his forces. I was immediately struck by the disembodied voice and immediately reminded of that of Saddam Hussein after the beginning of Desert Storm. But there is a big difference: Saddam was viewed by millions of Arabs, rightly or wrongly, as a leader, Gaddafi is seen as a nutcase.
Unlike Saddam who called on the Iraqi people to "Fight them". Gaddafi did not call upon his people to resist. I find that strange, but not unexpected from someone like him. He did say that he was arming the Libyan people now (as if he would take that chance).
What is certain is that this military action cannot last indefinitely. Otherwise it will risk alienating Arab public opinion which is at the worst non-committal so far.
Not so Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League who after suspending Libya from the League and calling for a No-Fly Zone now seems to be having second thoughts.
Today he said, "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians."
Well, I'm sorry, Mr Moussa. What did you think a No-Fly Zone means? You were Foreign Minister of Egypt when a No-Fly Zone was imposed on Iraq and should know full well what it means. The first targets were inevitably going to be Libya's air defenses and command and control structures followed by Gaddafi's armor on the ground.
I wonder if this about-face is not somehow connected to Moussa's prospective candidacy in the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt. You know those elections, the ones to choose a replacement for Hosni Mubarak whom Amr Moussa served for 10 years as Foreign Minister.
*Update: The US special envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is quoted as saying he supports Mubarak staying on, "I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is crucial - it's his chance to write his own legacy." First all I wonder if this is an official US policy statement. If it is then If you ignore the rubbish of Mubarak rewriting his legacy (he landed the country in this mess in the first place and you don't erase 30 years' worth of mediocrity in 8 months), I read this as Washington saying: the regime is headed in the right direction and we support it in its current efforts. The White House or State need to come out and clarify this.*
*Update 2: US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley: "We have great respect for Frank Wisner and we were deeply appreciative of his willingness to travel to Egypt last week. He has not continued in any official capacity following the trip. The views he expressed today are his own. He did not coordinate his comments with the U.S. government."*
My feeling is that this "leaderless" uprising may be losing the initiative. Yesterday it set itself a benchmark and failed to meet it. The opposition figures and those politicians who have sided with the people's demands and said they would consider submitting their candidacy for president "if the people ask me to" need to be proactive if this revolution is going to go anywhere and not get bogged down in Liberation Square. I hope I am mistaken and just unable to see through the haze.
I think the government is happy enough to allow the protesters to sit in one place, and shout their lungs out until they go hoarse. In the meantime the regime can shore up its defenses, harass more journalists and human rights activists, re-organize its thugs and give them new orders and in general try to resume the normal cycle of life in the country (Banks are set to re-open and the stock market to resume activities). But ultimately it is now bound to reform itself.
I still stand by my analysis from 2 days ago that Mubarak is finished. He is discredited and hardly the go-to man in Egypt any more for international leaders. (He has resigned his post as leader of the ruling party. Initial reports are premature, he's still party leader), his people are being replaced, including his trusted Safwat al-Sharif and son Gamal.
So how come is it that he hasn't left?
I call it the Spectre of Ben Ali, or the Ben Ali Syndrome. If Mubarak leaves he becomes a hunted figure and will bring down with him dozes of senior regime and NDP officials. It is these figures whom I believe wish for Mubarak to remain as a regime figurehead while transferring his powers to Vice-President Omar Suleiman. Mubarak does not want to be on an aircraft whose landing requests are denied by previously friendly leaders. And the Egyptian army, unlike it s Tunisian counterpart, understands how vital to its interests that the president appear to survive and not be humiliated while the regime regroups and figures out what to do.
And I am convinced that Washington and the other major capitals of the world would like the regime to survive, with modifications that take into account the warnings US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued in Qatar last month.
Egypt has always been influential in the Arab world and what better way for it to regain its influence than instituting reforms that will be looked up to by other Arab peoples, if not regimes?
So where does this leave us now?
The regime will not capitulate and Mubarak will not "leave" unless the people can force the regime's hand. I don't see that happening at the moment because the regime is now being proactive and not merely reacting.
If tomorrow banks do reopen and substantial numbers of government employees head to the ministries and offices then this will strike a serious blow at how representative of the general population the crowds in Liberation Square are. And it is important to see if there's going to be a rush on banks and massive withdrawals and whether the banking system can handle it.
Which is another factor in saying that the regime does not have the upper hand at the moment but neither is its back against the wall. But it is still on the defensive and in the eyes of the world it is the culpable party for rearing its ugly head on camera and shedding its people's blood. But it is appearing to clean house while retaining the core attributes of Mubarak's long rule.
These changes are cosmetic and do not address the demands of the demonstrators. They do not set the stage for the reforms that need to be enacted, disassembling the police state and enshrining the a democratic process in stone.
In Tunisia the upheaval started in one city and gradually spread all over the country, never being restricted to one geographical location.
At the moment the the situation in Egypt is like a localized infection.
The army, the linchpin of the regime, is comfortable enough to straddle the sidelines making sure the regime doesn't fall and at the same time keeping the goodwill of the people, and, while troublesome, the rest of the body has not succumbed to this troublesome localized infection, thereby helping the regime to avoid, so far, the Spectre of Ben Ali and remain as irreverent to its people as ever.
It is important to note that Mubarak's regime is also fighting on behalf of all the autocratic Arab regimes.
Protesters, take note! The aims of bringing down the president are still achievable but restricting the protest to a sit-in in Liberation Square is no longer sufficient. A voice must emerge and resound behind the closed doors where negotiations are taking place. The voice must come from the street and reverberate all the way behind those closed doors where the meetings are taking place. The politicians are trying to determine the future of Egypt. It is still in the hands of the people to decide whether Egypt is the state of a regime that eluded the Spectre of Ben Ali or one where the Egyptian people began the exorcism of the evils of decades past.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
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