And the Drug War Goes On

A couple of just published pieces of mine in Agora Revista. They were written a while ago but provide useful background and information on the brutal fighting in recent weeks in Tamaulipas between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels and on the arrest of Victor Emilio Cazares, known as “The Bachelor”.  They are in Spanish.

Not Quite Getting Democracy

Libya’s Justice and Construction Party, in other words the Muslim Brotherhood, has issued for the July 7 elections eight principles that they believe all Libyans should observe. Many of the principles are inspiring and recognize the importance of diversity, non-violence and the rule of law in building a democracy. All heartening and good stuff!

But there is also talk of forming a national consensus and principle 8 comes close to contradicting itself. It states: “Laying the foundations of freedom and respect for political pluralism in a cultural and social framework of national unity.”

Principle 7 lays it out more clearly. Libyans should always respect “the higher interest of the nation” and subordinate partisan, regional, tribal or individual interests to it. But who defines the higher national interest? Isn’t there a hint here of totalitarianism? One would have more faith in this blending of national interest and pluralism and diversity, if the months leading up to the elections had been marked by political transparency, both when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Transitional Council. But it hasn’t.

Decision-making on the NTC has been markedly opaque. An NTC member from Benghazi told me that the NTC has been controlled all along by a cabal of Muslim Brotherhood members and old Gaddafi figures. There are no votes, no regular NTC-wide meetings and no open, formal debate. Decisions are just announced and most NTC members don’t get a look-in. There are no set procedures. Leads one to wonder if the elections will change anything much.


The Not So Sweet Life

“Far from tourist crowds savouring Italy’s fabled dolce vita, sipping cappuccinos and chilled Prosecco in big-city piazzas, the walled towns and hilltop villages of Tuscia, in central Italy, are seeing the sweet life disappear.” The opening paragraph in my piece in Maclean’s magazine on the austerity-linked souring of Italian life in this decade of eurozone crisis.

Lacking Skepticism

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today about how the transitional Libyan authorities are planning to avoid the political chaos in neighboring Egypt by blocking the old Gaddafi guard from standing as candidates in the July 7 elections. True, the integrity committee has blocked about 320 candidates from standing. But the article lacks skepticism. The old guard is very much alive and present. Walk into any ministry and you will be dealing with Gaddafi-era senior officials. Many intelligence officials — including those specialized in electronic surveillance — have been recalled to work and it isn’t clear what criteria was used for calling some back but excluding others. Lastly, it isn’t clear how the criteria has been applied to reject some of the candidates — there are still some in the lists who were part of the Gaddafi structure.

Pre-Election Violence Surges In Libya

This is my log of recent violence in Libya and highlights the instability of the country as elections loom. The incidents have been gleaned from various reliable sources. It is not exhaustive.

June 9

Nighttime clashes between Libyan military units and Tibu tribesmen in the city of Al Khufra, near Libya’s borders with Chad and Sudan. Reports of five dead and a dozen wounded. Tibu tribesmen say they came under attack first — an accusation denied by the Libyan military.

Al Khufra has seen several clashes in recent weeks mainly between Tibu and Zwai tribesmen. In February, the transitional government dispatched Libyan armed forces units to the town.

June 10

Thirteen people killed in a second day of clashes between Libyan soldiers and Tibu tribesmen.

Armed thieves ransack a couple of office containers in Tripoli belonging to the Libyan Coast Guard then destroy them with RPG fire.

June 11

Grenade is thrown at two vehicles ferrying a British delegation around Sabha in the Southern region of Libya. No injures. Not clear if the assailant was targeting the British – the vehicles sported UN logos.

British diplomatic convoy comes under an RPG attack in Benghazi. Two security guards injured but the British ambassador unscathed.

Zintan militiamen seize several government vehicles in Tripoli. The action they say is a response to the government’s failure to settle their wage demands.

June 12

Heavy fighting reported in Mizdah between Zintan militia and Mashasha tribesmen, leaving 20 dead. There have been frantic appeals by locals to the government to put an end to the fighting.

June 13

Sixty-nine anti-aircraft missiles found discovered inside a fishing boat on Egyptian-Libyan border.

Two dead and a dozen left wounded after clashes in Sabha involving the “national army”.

A small mob gathered in Tripoli outside a courthouse near the Radisson Blu Hotel to demand the release of the former Gaddafi-era Minister of External Affairs Abu Zaid Omar Dorda, whose trial started that day. A nervous guard responded by firing into the mob, killing a driver working with a European Union delegation. The delegation responded by decamping from the Radisson for a day.

Several left dead and wounded in clashes in Al Khufra involving the Libya Shield force and members of armed groups.

Former Gaddafi-era internal security official Ibrahim Laaribi killed in a car bombing.  He is the second former intelligence officer to be assassinated.

June 17

Libyan government declares a military zone in the west of country (which will presumably mean that journalists and independent observers will be prohibited officially from visiting the area) after days of clashes between rival militias and tribes.

The zone includes the towns of Zintan, Mizdah and Shegayga, about 150 kilometres south of Tripoli. Most of the fighting in these towns involves Zintan militiamen backed by Guntrara tribesmen from the Mizdah pitched against Mashashya tribesmen based out of the town of Shegayga.

Sources have told me there are dozens of dead.


Libya’s Struggle With History

My piece in the latest issue of Newsweek examines what’s happening to history in the North African country and the competition to define the past that’s underway. “History, if it does its job, should tear away Gaddafi’s lies, document the tortures and slayings of his regime, and establish who did what to whom. For any country, however, working through the brutalities of a deposed dictatorship and apportioning blame can be risky, and throws up emotions of guilt, shame, and fury.”


Libyan Reflections

Gaddafi's Compound

Col. Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Azizia or the “The Splendid Gate” located in the southern suburbs of Tripoli served as the main base for the Libyan leader until his ouster. The 6-square-kilometre base was somewhere most Libyans didn’t want to go when Gaddafi was in power but since his fall and mainly at weekends families and out-of-towners like to walk around the site and stare. They still seem amazed that the uprising was successful – at least in the sense that it got rid of Gaddafi.

One of the biggest attractions is the byzantine network of underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings. Some tunnels stretch to adjoining districts. Gaddafi liked to sleep in a Bedouin-style tent pitched on the grounds. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Increasingly a visit to the base is perilous because it has been turned into one of the biggest fly tips in North Africa. With garbage collection at best unsure in the capital the base has become the preferred dump. And then there is the added bonus of feeling that you are insulting the former leader by fouling his home.

International workers – and this correspondent – like to criticize the transitional government for lack of coordination between its various ministries and parts. Certainly it is utterly dysfunctional. Spokesmen contradict each other and even themselves several times in the space of a day and the same with ministers and the leading members of the National Transitional Council.

From the bottom up and the top down there is confusion. But it is worth noting, too, that the various international missions and foreign NGO groups also lack coordination. Various UN agencies hardly talk to each other, for instance. And the domestic NGOs are no better: there are three umbrella organizations for domestic civil society groups that I know of alone.

My exclusive in the Daily Beast on the new NGO legislation caused a stir both in Libya and overseas, especially on Capitol Hill apparently, according to a friend of mine at the National Democratic Institute. Not that it made much difference or caused the Libyan authorities to rethink or pullback. Five days after publication, on June 1, they issued the new law anyway. In it there were some details I didn’t have, which, I think, make the regulatory framework they want to impose on civil society even more sinister.

The long and short of it is that funding by foreign NGOs of domestic NGOs is going to be difficult and the Ministry of Culture can always hold funding up by delaying or declining the registration of a foreign NGO. Another worrying area is the inexact wording of what constitutes a “grant”. The legislation bans open-ended cash “contributions” but allows “grants”. The ministry says that grants means project-specific funding. But they don’t define it. How will that play out? Can a project be extended and so too the funding?

Foreign NGOs will have to register in Libya if they want to fund a project and they are required to provide a tremendous amount of detail about themselves – the source of their money, the names and background of senior officers and board members, etc. Many foreign NGOs – and that includes charities, by the way — are just not going to go though all of that. This is how the crackdown on civil society began in neighboring Egypt in the winter.

Apologists for the NTC say that they can’t have just anyone funding domestic civil society and whisper of dark and dangerous forces: the ultimate purpose of the law is to hinder the Qataris just flooding the place with cash or the Russians or Al Qaeda. I can understand the worry about Qatar: the Emirate has been playing hard and fast and expects to get some reward for supplying the rebels with arms and training fighters during the uprising. The NTC has pushed back on the Qataris and refused some of its cash to fund various projects.

But I see the NGO regulations as having a wider purpose than shutting the door on just Qatar. They are part of a Gaddafi-era control reflex that remains deeply embedded in Libya’s body politic.

That control reflex is behind some other disturbing laws – the so-called Glorification law that until the Supreme Court nullified it made it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to say anything in praise of the Gaddafi regime or to be detrimental about the uprising; a law that grants immunity to rebels for any crimes committed during the insurrection; and another law, described by Amnesty as “encouraging carte blanche abuse”, instructing the country’s courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

Libya’s transitional Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib said during a recent trip to London that some of the laws international NGOs have criticized will “disappear from the scene” following the national election. It is a line several members of the NTC have been pushing on visiting American and European officials. They have told them the laws were a mistake.

But if the laws are such a mistake why aren’t they being withdrawn now? And why did the Justice Ministry bothered to defend the Glorification Law before the Supreme Court?

Further, how can the Prime Minister or any NTC member guarantee anything that the next national assembly or government decides to do?

Of course, it is not just on the big public things that you see the control reflex playing out. Journalists have found securing visas very difficult. CNN’s Nic Robertson told me the other day that he applied for a visa back in January and it only came through in March after he asked the interior minister on camera about it.

Foreign NGO workers are also having difficulty. And that was before their visas and journalist visas started to come under the authority recently of the Ministry of Culture, the authorizing authority under Gaddafi. Of course, that ministry is still run by Gaddafi-era bureaucrats.

It isn’t the only one. Go to any ministry and you find the old boys are still in charge. Of course, that in some ways has been helpful in the transition: at least they know how things work (or don’t). But there are no signs, alas, of change in the ministries in terms of fresh approaches and ideas or new ways of doing things.

The control reflex also plays out on the streets with various militias insisting on seeing your permission to film or to take photographs. A Libyan camera crew working for a foreign broadcaster tried to resist this the other week when militiamen told them they couldn’t film in Martyrs Square near the main souk and across the street from Libya’s national museum. A Libyan female member of the crew screamed at them that she had fought in the revolution for a new Libya not the return of the old. Apparently unidentified militiamen tell people that foreigners taking pictures are almost certainly western spies.

Depressingly, not even the NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi is a fan of the free press. The other week at his regular midweek news conference he lambasted the irresponsibility of the media and talked about how he hoped a future government would crackdown on the press and punish those who didn’t put national unity first, etc. Disturbingly, some local journalists agreed with him – including a reporter from the English-language Tripoli Post, who had urged the spokesman on by denouncing another newspaper for publishing a false report.

Libyan Leader Summoned By Benghazi Court



By Jamie Dettmer

A Benghazi court has opened an investigation into the murky July 2011 death of the then top Libyan rebel military commander Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes and has summoned Libya’s current interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to appear before it to answer questions.

The move adds to an already unsettled political picture here. The country’s election commission has hinted already that the scheduled June 19 national election will have to be delayed because of administrative challenges involving the vetting of candidates and the printing of ballot papers.

General Younes, a former officer and interior minister in the Gaddafi government, was assassinated along with two aides after being summoned to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi to appear before a judicial inquiry. Abdel Jalil announced his death on July 28 2011 and provided few details. It is unclear tonight whether he will respond to the summons.

Benghazi rebels have increasingly expressed in recent weeks their frustration with the pace of political change and have argued they are under-represented on the ruling National Transitional Council, of which Abdel Jalil is chairman. They have also expressed unhappiness with the large number of former Gaddafi figures in positions of authority in Tripoli. A Benghazi rebel source linked those frustrations with the timing of the investigation.

Asked whether this could turn into a confrontation between Benghazi and Tripoli, the source said: “It depends on how Jalil reacts.”

The general’s assassination angered members of his tribe — the Obeidi, one of the largest in east Libya, who blamed the rebel leadership for having some role in Younes’ murder. Tens of thousands of people gathered the day after the announcement in Benghazi’s central Courthouse Square – renamed Tahrir Square by the opposition – to observe Friday prayers and to mourn general.