Saif Qaddafi’s Capture and the End of the Arab Spring

by Martin Peretz | November 23, 2011

Forgive the corny metaphors. But it was not I who framed developments in the Arab world with the sequence of the seasons. Still, you need only glance at the papers to recognize that Arab Spring is now Arab Winter without really ever having passed through summer or fall. Spring is, as ever, a romantic memory. 

As I write, Reuters reports from the Cairo morgue that 33 to 46 protestors were killed by the police since Saturday—and that nearly 1,300 were wounded and maimed. Alternating waves of Islamists and more secular young people converged on Tahrir Square where the revolt seems to have established a permanent battlefield. But violence was not confined to this city center: The campus of the American University in Cairo and other buildings were also targets, although the targeters could not be identified. This is chaos beyond revolution and counter-revolution. The entire civilian cabinet has resigned and its resignation accepted by the ruling military council, gleefully, I suspect. Elections were to begin next Monday, although they may not happen at all, of course. If they should, these would be the first free parliamentary polling in many decades—that is, if they turned out to be free.

This is the salient intra-Muslim political news from Cairo. Christians don’t really matter in the liberal worldview. So the television journalists have certainly forgotten the ongoing torment of the Coptic church, whose believers make up more than 10 percent of the Egyptian populace and on whom they focused for ten minutes early on during the first disturbances. Perhaps serendipitously, on Sunday, The New York Times carried stories, not news stories but reflective little essays, on the prospects for non-Muslim people in the new Egypt. At the top of one page was a piece by an unusually learned and literate writer, Andre Aciman, himself a Jew born in Egypt, pondering the Christian future in Egypt, a country where Christian civilization predates Islam by more than half a millennium. The other article is by Pulitzer Prize winner (twice), Anthony Shadid, also writing on what the future holds for Christian believers in a place where Muslim extremism is on the rise. (I am right now reading his newly published, very elegant book, House of Stone, a memoir from Christian Marjayoun, a place I know from my visits along with Israeli soldiers during their Lebanese adventures. What a splendid writer he is. In Tuesday’s Times you can read a mellifluous piece on Bahrain.) There are virtually no reports from elsewhere in Egypt. So maybe there’s peace in Alexandria. Maybe not.

The most up-to-date and deep consideration of the new turbulence is a paper by two scholars (David Schenker and Eric Trager) at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It is PolicyWatch 1874. Here is its terrible conclusion:

For Washington, the current situation in Egypt is a nightmare. Contrary to popular impressions, the Obama administration did not embrace the anti-Mubarak protestors last February but rather supported the Egyptian army in facilitating a change from Mubarak's rule to an uncertain military-led transition. Since then, Washington has vacillated on who its allies in Egypt really are. Is it the military, with whom the administration shares certain strategic understandings on key national security issues? Or the Muslim Brotherhood, which many in Washington view as both the authentic voice of the people and, given its “inevitable” electoral victory, a faction America should court? Or the secular liberals, who -- despite being the most ideologically congenial to America's democratic spirit -- have shown themselves to be poor political organizers often too willing to cooperate with illiberal forces (e.g., Salafists) for short-term gain? The absence of clarity on this issue has paralyzed U.S. policymaking, and as a result, the administration now has little sway with any of these key constituencies.

We do get smatterings of news from another Egypt, not urban Egypt, but the Sinai, where the Mubarak regime had once planned to create new towns and cities. But, for whatever reasons (and maybe the very practicality of the project was simply too ambitious), it all came to a halt. Like Gaza, the Sinai is actually more a curse than a blessing. The politics are certainly unconventional. In fact, the Bedouin insurgency is utterly apolitical, even anti-political. It is ethnocentric kleptocracy. Still, the peninsula of rocky sand has political value to some. To Israel, as a buffer against the Egyptian army and its American-supplied might. And now Israel and Egypt itself face in this desert the deft maneuvering of the Muslim extreme, the Brotherhood, Hamas, and other groups disciplined only to their chastening version of the Book, in this case, the Koran. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy devoted a conference day to the new Sinai and its strategic meaning. PolicyWatch 1872 gives you the précis of two experts. One is by the Israeli security analyst Ehud Ya’ari. The other is by Colonel Normand St. Pierre, just retired as part of the U.S. command which has monitored the Egyptian-Israeli peace in the Sinai for more than three decades. Quiet once and for long years, quiet no more. This is a coming story, so to speak: much more to hear about this empty quarter in the future. (Thirty-three years ago, the great American documentarian Fred Wiseman made a film called Sinai Field Mission. See it if you can.)

Of course, Syria did not have even a day of Spring. It was denied either by a vengeful Providence or by the Assad family (or both) any respite from the travails of tyranny—except that there are Syrians in the millions who are loyal to this terror regime out of doctrinal fidelity, ethnic calculation, class solidarity, downright fear. OK, fear and loathing. But in some weird way also ecstatic. (Theo Padnos wrote twice and quite profoundly about this ecstasy in these columns on May 9 and October 4.) The ferocity of the regime still defies imagining—and the cold calculus of those not of them but, willy-nilly, with them, too. Can President Obama, looking in the mirror of his mind, grasp that he once thought and for a long time that Bashar Al Assad was a reformer and could be a trusted ally? (Maybe Anna Wintour can arrange for her oh, so voguish Vogue magazine, which ran a suck-up production about Asma Al Assad at the dawn of the revolution, to do a follow-up piece on the elegance of the first lady’s life in the shadows of mass murder. Has Wintour ever explained any of this corruption of the fashionable? Has Si Newhouse?) After months and months of averting its eyes, the administration is still refusing to take responsibility for its morally corrupt Syria policy. Like its morally corrupt Iran policy, which consisted of nothing but appeasing the unappeasable. It still won’t sanction the Iranian central bank, a step which France advocates and which Canada has actually taken. Keith Johnson’s article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal explains the subtleties between us and the rest: Obama still thinks he can euchre Iran into curtailing its nuclear ambitions, which is better than denying them, as Seymour Hersh does for the umpteenth time in The New Yorker online.

There is very little Syrian oil to incentivize Obama to look hard at his choices, and the western European powers (yes, less powerful than they once were and less powerful than we are) are exhausted by their Libyan venture. Moreover, China and Russia, operating without an ethical compass at all, utterly without one, will stand in the way of the principle of collective security which assumes that there are some common norms that will be honored by most all states. After almost three years, Obama has been forced by cold reality into the conclusion that Iran will not be conciliated into merely peaceful uses of atomic power. So the U.S. and its allies have finally agreed on sanctions against Tehran, not all the sanctions but most. Still, the Chinese and Russians again refuse to go along. There is an irony in all this, and it is that the Cold War alliances are slowly but surely being revivified. And a second irony: that Obama may be forced, by world politics and by domestic politics, into taking the lead in the contest for power in the world.

But it has not yet happened in Syria about which the president and his secretary of state are strangely reticent. More than 4,000 people have by now been massacred in Syria and tens of thousands suffered injuries to their bodies and minds. Read the immensely stirring report in the November 20 issue of the Daily Mail of how 15-year old Mohammed Mulla Eissa was murdered by an officer in the militia because he refused to march in a procession against the revolt. Apparently, Mohammed is the 282nd youngster to die in the suppression of this insurgency. More than 20,000 participated in his funeral. Still, in some cities and towns, fidelity to Assad and his Ba’ath party remains strong if, however, not passionate. There are not even a few alternatives to the current one that would appear to be progressive.

Absent the United States, there is one new player on the cartography of the Arabs. And it is non-Arab but Sunni Muslim Turkey or, more precisely, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Now, Erdogan has several advantages. Millenarian Islam is experiencing a transcontinental ascendancy. His economy is robust. His army is ready, relatively well-supplied and trained (by Israel). Also big, though its commanders are unwilling to go on adventures. And one more thing: The president of the United States is a big fan. He may encourage Erdogan to do what he wouldn’t, heaven forbid, think for a moment that his own country might do. Which is, among other initiatives, lay down a no-fly zone over all of Syria. It would be a cinch for Turkey to do that. Erdogan has already threatened to establish what amounts to a Turkish buffer on Syrian soil. After all, the territorial settlements of the post-World War I era were not universally accepted. Certainly not by Turkey or Syria, and these differences have arisen from time to time between the two countries. This is Turkey’s great moment: to help establish a Sunni government—it couldn’t be anything but a tyranny—in Syria with its Muslim Brotherhood in power and aching for revenge, revenge that would be gruesome but very comprehensible.

The struggle against the mercilessness that now affects and infects the orbit of Islam from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Sudan and Nigeria is fought on many battlefields. In Yemen, as just one instance, where it’s difficult to tell who’s who and what’s what. But one place offered clear moral and also both strategic and tactical choices, and it was Libya. In a way, the Libyan situation was idiosyncratic, separate, even incomparable. It had no ideology of which to speak. The ruler was a madman, pure and simple. Whatever contemporary social strata there were stemmed from him and his calculus, rewarded or punished by him. These certainly were also corrupt. But there were also subterranean pre-modern groups that antedate King Idris who was dethroned in 1969 by Qaddafi, age 29.

The regime was not, then, structurally or ideologically enmeshed with the society. Even those loyal to the colonel could not have imagined that their loyalty expressed deep roots or deep longings. Bernard-Henri Levy grasped immediately from the very moment when Libyans went into the streets that this dictatorship was vulnerable, could actually be overthrown, uprooted. But the process needed help. BHL intuited that Nicolas Sarkozy, whose socialist opponent for the French presidency he had supported, would see both the ethical stakes in a struggle against Qaddafi and the political stakes for France if it were to lead an intercession in the battle. Had France not been willing—and Great Britain, too—there would be zero chance that the U.S. would become involved. It is true that American flying capacity and other advanced technologies were essential to the operation. Still, there’d be no need for anything American had there not been Bernard ready to persuade Sarkozy and Sarkozy willing to be persuaded. “Lead from behind,” indeed.

Richard Brody wrote all this in The New Yorker online on March 25, 2011: “Did BHL Take NATO to War?” Well, yes. Thank God. BHL has now written a personal memoir of the whole enterprise. Part of it was published in TNR (December 1) and online on November 9. (You might have missed it because, for some reason, it was not put on the cover.) Levy’s reflections focus on Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, the tyrant’s favorite son and ordained heir to the throne, who was arrested about ten days ago and is now on his way to the Hague. Where you will see how international justice fails us. 

This is the spurious intellectual, with a Ph.D. thesis written by someone else. A doctorate granted by the London School of Economics, which got a couple of million bucks in the deal. Who dealt academically with two Harvard professors, lucky him, lucky them: Joseph Nye, who claims to have been misrepresented and may have been; Stephen Walt, a fraud whose hatred of the Jews (see The Israel Lobby) is stronger than his affections even for scummy folk, one of whom Saif certifiably is.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.

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