Low turnout in Egypt parliamentary election

The Egyptian military saved Egypt’s democracy so hard that you don’t even need to vote there anymore because it’s so saved. And yet the regime is furious no one showed up this week for the first round of a largely uncontested parliamentary election.

“Despite risk of $62 fine for not voting, less than 20% of Egyptians bothered to show up at polls” – Al-Monitor

President Abdul Fatah al Sisi, former general and military ruler:

“I call on you to rally strongly once again, in order to complete this last milestone that we all agreed upon.”

Not sure who exactly agreed upon what, given that he staged a military coup, banned the most popular party, and then rammed through a new constitution approved with extremely low turnout.

…the minister of local development, Ahmed Zaki Bader, on Oct. 19 threatened laggards with the law, insinuating that those who were registered but refrained from voting without a valid excuse (which the law does not specify) would be fined 500 Egyptian pounds ($62) in accordance with Article 57 of the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights.


For pro-reform Egyptians, the terrorists have already won

Summary | Arab Spring: Massive undirected terror unleashed by foreign fundamentalists and diehard regimes cooled enthusiasm for protest.

An Issue Brief entitled “Egypt’s Next Phase: Sustainable Instability” by Michael Wahid Hanna for The Century Foundation (published on July 1, 2015, just ahead of the second anniversary of the military coup d’état) includes a section making the case that the catastrophic region-wide failure of the Arab Spring — especially its particularly violent self-immolation in Syria, Libya, and Yemen — has deterred Egyptians from seeking new rounds of reform against their reactionary government.

While Egypt’s security situation is deteriorating and its security establishment has proven unsuited to the task at hand, particularly with respect to dealing with the low-level insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, the rising tide of violence, terrorism, and conflict throughout the Arab world have had a profound effect on Egyptian society and have curbed the impulse for political change. In the current regional context, political change and efforts at reform are seen by most Egyptians to be risky endeavors with potentially disastrous unintended consequences.
This regionalized climate of instability has helped solidify support for the Sisi regime, albeit ambivalent support among certain segments of Egyptian society. The horrifying regional examples of state collapse and civil war have created widespread aversion and revulsion at the prospect of political violence and terrorism. While the proliferation of such violence might damage the credibility of the Sisi regime and its competence over time, it is unlikely to produce widespread public support for radical political change and potential upheaval amongst a cautious and fatigued society.


Status and outcomes of Arab Spring uprisings as of February 2015. Map by Ian Remsen for Wikimedia.

Status and outcomes of Arab Spring uprisings as of February 2015. Map by Ian Remsen for Wikimedia.

Further adventures in Egyptian pseudo-secularism

flag-of-egyptEgypt’s military-supported “secularist” government under former General Sisi picked a new Justice Minister after the most recent one put his foot very deep in his mouth. This one promises to be somehow more controversial. Here are just a few quotations from incoming Justice Minister Ahmed el-Zend, out of a veritable cornucopia of outrageousness:

On a visit to Mecca, he previously gave an interview calling for the full imposition of Sharia law in Egypt – rather than it being acknowledged constitutionally as the “principal source for legislation” as at present.

He specifically called for that to include penalties of “hudud” – corporal penalties for moral crimes such as beheading for apostasy, lashing for fornication, and amputations of limbs for theft.

“We have in our penal code some articles that contradict Islamic Sharia,” he said. “I would like the penal code to become Islamic from A to Z.

“I would like a single article to be added to the penal code – that Islamic Sharia to be applied with hudud.” As critics noted, even the Brotherhood never calling for immediate application of hudud – a practice followed only in the most authoritarian Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and abandoned elsewhere.

I still can’t believe all the Western suckers and Islamophobes who fervently believed the military coup in July 2013 would end religiously-influenced government in Egypt. In reality, as I’ve said many times, the military just wanted military-led ultraconservative Islam, not liberal secularism.

By contrast, the supposedly dictatorial administration led by Muslim Brotherhood officials wanted plural, moderate Islamic democracy. In many ways, the Brotherhood’s version of political Islam was demonstrably far less hardline than that of the military’s — and it was perhaps even less conservative than Egyptian society as a whole. This is just another piece of evidence on the mountain already plainly visible: The secularists got duped in their own haste to eject the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt Air Force strikes ISIS of Libya at Derna

Breaking news from Al Arabiya:

Egypt’s military said it bombed ISIS targets in Libya at dawn on Monday, following the execution of a group of Egyptian Copts by the militant group.

On Sunday, ISIS released a video purportedly showing the beheading of 21 Egyptians captured in Libya. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called an urgent meeting of Egypt’s top national security body after the video was released.

Sisi also gave a televised address, saying that Egypt and the world are facing “ferocious threats” hailing from radical militants, who are “devoid of any humane sense.”

He said his country reserved the right to “punish these murderers” as he called a meeting of security chiefs and declared seven days of mourning after the video was distributed by militants on social media.

You can read more on Sisi’s Right-to-Respond speech early Monday morning, from The Cairo Post. (Note: President Sisi, “elected” with nearly 100% of the vote in the elections following his 2013 military coup, is a conservative anti-Islamist militarist with a tight grip on local media.)

Most if not all of the airstrikes reported so far by people on the ground occurred in Derna. As Arsenal For Democracy explored in depth in our November 2014 article “Derna: ‘Islamic State’ proclaims 2nd ‘province’ in Libya”, the city of Derna was the beachhead for returning Libyan veteran fighters of the successful ISIS campaigns into Iraq in 2013 and 2014, and it has become the headquarters of the major ISIS affiliate in Libya. Since that post, however, at least two additional “ISIS provinces” have been proclaimed in the country’s historic three provinces. The group has staged attacks in Tripoli and elsewhere, but the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts at Sirte was the most brazen episode yet.

Road map showing ISIS-Libya positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi within the greater Cyrenaica (Barqa) region of eastern Libya.

Road map showing ISIS-Libya positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi within the greater Cyrenaica (Barqa) region of eastern Libya.

The executions may have provided Sisi’s pretext for a long-anticipated full-scale Egyptian military intervention in Libya, following non-admitted more limited/outsourced aerial engagements in Benghazi in October and its non-admitted assistance with the covert United Arab Emirates air operation in Libya in August. This is the first publicly confirmed operation by Egypt in its neighbor.

It may also put western Libyan pro-GNC Islamist militias that oppose ISIS in an awkward position. They vowed yesterday to begin operations against ISIS at Sirte, but they also oppose the faction Egypt has aggressively backed. A wider Egyptian intervention would be almost certainly directed at all Islamist groups, not just ISIS, much as Egypt’s internal military operations have been aimed equally at ISIS of Sinai as at the Muslim Brotherhood.

Back home in Egypt, the incident is likely to have a similar rallying effect to that seen in Jordan after its pilot was executed. However, there is an added religious dimension, as the regime is plainly exploiting existential fears of the minority Egyptian Coptic Christian community to compel them to rally to the regime despite its relative non-attention to their security. Returning the Al Arabiya article:

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church said it was “confident” that those who purportedly beheaded a group of Egyptian Copts in Libya will be punished.

“The Orthodox church … is confident its homeland would not rest until the evil perpetrators get their fair retribution for their wicked crime,” the Coptic church said in a statement on its Facebook page.


On another front, in an unusually militaristic statement from the Italians — currently under a center-left government that is grappling with unpopular economic reforms under a very young leader and with a rising Libyan refugee crisis — Libya’s former colonial occupier formally called for an international military coalition against Libya’s jihadists and said it was “ready to lead” such a coalition. That’s probably the last thing Libya needs in the current climate there. Such an intervention would almost assuredly receive a much less warm welcome than the 2011 NATO air campaign in the country against Qaddafi.

The vastly more populous and heavily armed country of Yemen, embroiled in civil war, continues to garner substantially less coverage than massive oil producer, low-population Libya.

This can only possibly end amazingly well

A further step in the never-ending deepening process of Egypt’s militarized state, country, and society:

Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued a decree on Monday to create a new police rank with arrest powers, the move will increase the number of law enforcement staff.

Spokesperson to the presidency, Alaa Youssef said in a statement that the decision aims at creating a new rank of ‘police aides’ who will be appointed and trained according to specific criteria.

The low ranking police positions will be limited to 19 to 23 year-olds who have completed preparatory school.

flag-of-egyptSounds a lot like it will be a nominally secular, Egyptian version of Iran’s Basij militias. No doubt they will be used to intimidate and terrorize the general population by endless harassment for petty infractions and alleged religious violations. In particular, expect heavy harassment of female citizens.

At minimum, it will create a whole new class of people loyal to and dependent upon the centrality of security forces in Egyptian political and economic life. And that kind of insurance policy for the military is exactly what the 2013 coup was meant to bring about.

Confusion in Libya as Egyptian jets bomb Benghazi

It’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on in Libya right now, even for the people there…

First, a quick recap of the year to present before today’s big event:

Earlier this year, an anti-Islamist former Army general, Khalifa Hifter, attempted to seize power in western Libya unsuccessfully. That effort having failed, Hifter regrouped and launched a rogue “security operation” to try to unilaterally clear eastern Libya of pro-Islamist militias in the city of Benghazi. This appeared to work for a time, and he tried to seize power in western Libya again, also without much effect. That was probably the high point of his efforts, in hindsight.

In August, the newly elected anti-Islamist government fled to Tobruk (in the east, in the coastal district next to Egypt) from Tripoli (the capital, in the west) as the latter city fell to pro-Islamist militia forces who supported the previous government. I speculated that this geographical repositioning — to the safest possible area away from Islamist factions — might signal either an imminent coup or an impending request for intervention from the anti-Islamist military government of President Sisi next door in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, mysterious fighter jets appeared over Tripoli and bombed rebel positions. The United States government announced after several days that it believed the airstrikes had been from the United Arab Emirates Air Force with support from Egyptian air bases, a claim Egypt denied officially and loudly.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Instead of those airstrikes beating back the pro-Islamist militias in western Libya, the militias simply gathered themselves up and launched a concerted offensive on eastern Libya. They entered the city of Benghazi in recent weeks, leaving many Hifter sympathizers to flee to places like Tobruk (though he himself is reportedly still in Benghazi). Military barracks and other key sites of the anti-Islamist renegades and the official armed forces rapidly fell.

So what happened today?

Well, nobody is sure exactly, but we do know that mystery jets appeared again and bombed Islamist positions, this time in Benghazi (AP).

So who’s behind it?

The Associated Press got anonymous sources inside the Egyptian military to say that this was an Egyptian Air Force operation:

Egypt deepened its involvement in the fight against Islamist militias who have taken over key parts of Libya on Wednesday, with officials saying Egyptian warplanes have bombed their positions in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.

Publicly, and at the highest levels, Egypt again denied this had occurred.

The official line either way seems to be that the anti-Islamist government internally exiled to Tobruk, not far from the border with Egypt, authorized whatever happened:

The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

A prominent Libyan legislator, whose father heads the Libyan Air Force, also denied that Egypt itself had bombed Benghazi, claiming to the AP instead that they were loaner planes:

Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were “rented” by the Libyan administration from Egypt. Al-Jorushi is awaiting confirmation of his appointment on the Tobruk-based parliament’s national security committee, which is responsible for such issues. He is also the son of the head of Libya’s air force, Gen. Saqr al-Jorushi. He said he learned that the planes are Egyptian from the new chief of staff

A Benghazi militia commander opposing the militarists and the Tobruk government offered this intelligence to the media:

Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi said Egypt sent its warplanes to hit his group’s positions.

“We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya’s eastern city of Bayda.

Bayda is a coastal city about halfway between Benghazi and Tobruk.
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Theoretical implications of moving the Libyan government to Tobruk

A few weeks back, the newly elected government made the decision to move the parliament and government functions temporarily to Tobruk in light of the very heavy fighting in Tripoli (the capital) between two major rival Western Libyan militias, the Zintan Brigade and the Misrata-based Dawn of Libya militia coalition.

Libya, of course, has long been split in many directions (partially by intentional policy of Col. Gaddafi), but has been particularly increasingly divided between its western and eastern halves as a result of the 2011 Civil War. That war saw eastern Libya become independent of the prior regime for almost half a year before the country was reunited. Tripoli is one of the major cities in western Libya and was one of the last to fall during the 2011 Civil War.

In contrast, Tobruk is so far east along the Libyan coast that it’s the district capital of the district bordering Egypt. It’s not the biggest center of power in eastern Libya — that would be Benghazi — but it’s still significant and is probably the runner-up. Tobruk was actually the former core of the post-World War II Libyan monarchy, prior to its overthrow by Gaddafi. It was also one of the earliest cities to rebel in 2011.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Overall the eastern part of the country (and especially Benghazi) is the part most strongly under the influence of the anti-Islamist and probably anti-democratic faction led by General Khalifa Hifter (see all our coverage of Hifter), which is attempting a slow-motion coup. Tripoli is the least under his influence and had been substantially more favorable toward Islamist-aligned militias, instead of the secular militias. Hifter’s prior attempts to seize control of the government in Tripoli were met with mockery in no small part because the members of parliament and the cabinet were out of his reach from Benghazi. And his relative strength in the capital has further declined as the Zintan Brigades, the Tripoli militia most closely aligned with Hifter’s agenda, are pushed out of their power position in the capital by the Islamist-aligned Misrata militia forces.

The people who moved the parliament and cabinet temporarily from Tripoli are, in addition to being the newly-elected administration, represent the parliamentary faction that is most friendly to General Hifter. Now the semi-official interim capital has suddenly moved all the way from western Libya to eastern Libya and stands between General Hifter’s Benghazi and (like-minded) General Sisi’s Egypt. (There have been much-denied rumors of Egyptian military involvement in some of the recent air operations against Hifter’s enemies and Sisi has ominously not ruled out military involvement in Libya against Islamist militias, given his own authoritarian secularism and anti-Islamist counterinsurgency campaign in Egypt. || Update 8/25/14: U.S. officials now say Egypt supported an attack in Tripoli by the pro-Zintan United Arab Emirates Air Force.)

No wonder the opposing faction was furious about the government being moved “temporarily” from Tripoli to Tobruk: It’s now sitting there for the taking by the secular-militarists following General Hifter, if they decide they want it. They just have to reach out and take control.

Of course, as always, that assumes one can really “seize power” in a country as fractious and decentralized as Libya.