April 2 - April 8
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 2 - 8!
A quick note: Starting with this dispatch, I’ll be citing stories older than one week where necessary. A number of stories have come up which tend to look like routine politics until a week or two later, and I’d rather be able to give a comprehensive read on an event than miss something based on a 7-day window. The world’s done an awful poor job conforming to my schedule so far, and I’ve little reason to expect it to do so in the future.
That said, let’s get started!
The Tuareg rebels declared the northern territories an independent nation, calling it Azawad. The declaration was immediately rejected by the African Union and several other international parties, though the AU and France also turned down the Malian coup leaders plea for military assistance. The coup leaders announced that, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, they would hand over power to the National Assembly within days, and deposed President Toure officially stepped down to facilitate the transfer of power.
The Tuareg’s historic homeland covers parts of Algeria, Libya, and Niger as well as Mali, which may explain the chilly reception from both the African Union and ECOWAS. The group also has ties to groups claiming affiliation with al Qaeda, which hasn’t won them friends in the west either.
As April 10th, the deadline for a cease-fire agreed upon under terms brokered by the UN, approaches, violence continued in Syria. At the end of the week, the Syrian government said it would not enact the cease fire without written guarantees from the rebels that they too would stop fighting. Hopes for a cease-fire were also undermined by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who pledged significant financial and material support to the rebels.
The “Friends of Syria” are not providing weapons directly, but with more than $100M earmarked to pay for the Free Syrian Army’s salary, they might as well. It’s little wonder the Assad regime is lukewarm on the prospect of a cease- fire.
Following rising tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military leadership and a dearth of other candidates to endorse, the Brotherhood backed away from an earlier pledge to abstain from the election and announced a candidate for president. On Sunday, another candidate was announced: Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former intelligence chief.
When Mubarak was deposed, many observers noted it looked an awful lot more like a coup than a revolution: the crisis in Egypt ended with Mubarak in the hands of the military, not the people. Suleiman’s candidacy fits this narrative: when things started looking sour for Mubarak, he offered Suleiman as his replacement. For several months now, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been sparring over who will ultimately control Egypt, and Suleiman looks to be the military’s next play. The Brotherhood may have decided it couldn’t risk not running a candidate, even if the move scares away some potential supporters.
In the aftermath of the unrest which removed former President Saleh, Yemen’s south continues to be a center of unrest. The government has not managed to fully re-establish control, despite its best efforts, and al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch is becoming well rooted in the area, as evidenced by a spate of recent attacks. Adding to the government’s woes, troops loyal to the former president’s half- brother Saleh al-Ahmar shut down Yemen’s largest airport for a day to protest al- Ahmar’s sacking by President Hadi, one of nearly 20 firings intended to clear the military ranks of loyalists to the old regime.
Saleh’s resignation earlier this year left a number of open questions, including the disposition of his friends and family members in key government positions. The firings and subsequent airport takeover aren’t going to settle any nerves in Yemen. Until the new government can deal with the remnants of Saleh’s regime and get full control over the military, it won’t be able to tackle the problem in the south, which means the al Qaeda affiliate will continue to have a free hand. President Hadi may possibly have the worst job in the world.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called for the breakup of China’s four biggest banks, saying their monopoly on finance is beginning to slow China’s economic growth. Wen’s statement follows on another talk he gave at the end of March admonishing the Chinese government to do more to tackle corruption.
All four banks are state-owned and massively well connected, which is why Wen’s statement is particularly worth note.
I’m always reluctant to spend too much time talking about al Qaeda or its affiliated groups - the group is just too much of a hot issue, and American news in particular tends to be extremely sloppy in dealing with al Qaeda. They’ve been largely removed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the news from North Africa and Yemen this week are signs of the vitality of their affiliates. In general, though, Al Qaeda tends to operate in conjunction with other local groups: the group itself is relatively light on manpower, and tends to act more as training, logistics, and support for local movements. This makes them an extremely amorphous group, but it also is a weakness, since the local groups usually have goals that don’t match al Qaeda’s brand of International Jihad. This was effectively the lesson of the “Sunni Awakening” during the Iraq war - separating al Qaeda from their local supporters can be an extremely effective means of shutting down the group’s activities in a given area. The situations in Mali, Yemen, and Somalia are going to get more scrutiny in the coming weeks, and I guarantee the al Qaeda connection will become part of the news. Keep in mind the distinction between al Qaeda proper and other local Islamist groups: most groups operating in the region don’t have aims on the sort of international actions al Qaeda aspires to, and the presence of “al Qaeda-affiliated groups” does not actually tell one an awful lot in that region - several of the rebel groups in Libya during Gaddafi’s overthrow had links to al Qaeda as well.
Thanks for joining, and my best for the week ahead!