September 18 - 30
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for September 18 - 30!
Embassy Riots Followup:
Following the release of an inflammatory YouTube video two weeks ago, a series of protests rocked the Middle East, resulting in the storming of several American embassies and the death of the American ambassador to Libya. While the protests themselves have largely abated, given the severity of the events, I wanted to follow up on some of the aftermath of the riots.
Thousands of Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi on the 21st in frustration over the killing of the widely popular American ambassador. The protestors seized control of the headquarters of several militias, including those of Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi group thought responsible for the ambassador’s killing. The Libyan government seized on the popular momentum on the 24th, issuing a decree that all militias not under the control of the Defense Ministry disband and leave government property. The militias pushed back, though, attacking a hotel housing members of the National Congress, injuring two people.
Libya today looks to be a power struggle between two main factions: the Islamist militias, who, while instrumental in defeating Qaddafi, are looking for a government based on strict Sharia law; and the elected government and the rest of the Libyan citizens who have shown repeatedly that they’re interested in a legitimate, mostly secular, representative government. The militias have played a valuable role in both liberating the country and in securing vital infrastructure in the post-Qaddafi power vacuum (Ansar al- Sharia, in addition to their less-laudable activities, acted as security for the main hospital in Benghazi), but ultimately they don’t share common cause with the Libyan people. The popular action on the 21st indicates the people are likely to be the victors here, but Libya has certainly not stabilized yet.
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s highest religious authority, issued a statement on the 20th calling for Muslims to show restraint in the face of insults against the religion. A week later, though, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi joined the leaders of several other nations, including Libya and Pakistan, in calling for limits on free speech at the UN.
The call for limits on free speech are troubling, though anti-blasphemy laws are nothing new in the region. Morsi continues to show he is his own man: though he seems sincerely interested in a democratic Egypt, he seems in no way interested in pandering to the west or America. He does seem interested in stability in the region, though - especially stability fostered by a resurgent Egypt - and that does line up with American interests. The Grand Mufti’s statements are laudable, though I frankly don’t know how much weight they will carry. He is already known as a moderate, and has made his opinion on extremism clear, which means he may not have a lot of influence over the sort of groups which were involved in the embassy riots.
The Pakistani government declared a national holiday on Friday the 21st, encouraging peaceful protests over the film. The protests rapidly turned violent, leading to 19 deaths and more than 160 people wounded. A Pakistani Cabinet Minister offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the person behind the film.
Pakistan is the most dangerous and unstable country in the region right now. The ISI (Pakistani Intelligence) has used Islamic extremist organizations as proxies in Afghanistan and India for the better part of two decades, and these groups and their offspring are now entrenched in Pakistan. Several analysts have written about the rising tide of Islamism in the Pakistani Military, suggesting the organization might not be able to be counted upon should Pakistan attempt to take control of its northern territories. The Pakistani government practically endorsed the riots, and the bounty offer is illegal in the country but appears to have drawn little more than faint condemnation.
The US Drone program in Pakistan is partially responsible for Pakistan’s recent turn towards extremism - I will have more on this topic later.
Mass protests broke out in Spain on Tuesday as protestors marched on Parliament to protest planned austerity measures. The protests were met with a harsh response by riot police, with around 32 people injured in the melee. Meanwhile, in Greece, the Guardian reports that the police are increasingly referring citizens to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party to settle law enforcement matters.
Despite every scrap of evidence to the contrary, the EU continues to push austerity as a panacea for Europe’s woes. While the protests in Spain are notable (as are those in Portugal, Greece, France, and Italy), the Guardian’s report from Greece is much more troubling. The biggest danger in the Eurozone is posed by groups like Golden Dawn. Economic matters can generally be dealt with, but the breakdown of civil society and the increased prominence of fascist groups presents a very real danger not just to Greece but to the rest of Europe. The rise of the national socialist and fascist groups of the 1930’s was in no small way a response to the economic hardships of the era - Golden Dawn’s ascent in Greece should make policymakers extremely nervous.
This is another piece of good news for Somalia following the elections earlier this year. If al-Shabaab keeps its promise to switch to insurgency-style tactics, Somalia could be in for a rough time, though the country is still in a better position now that the group has been routed from all its territory. It remains to be seen whether the country can keep these gains after the African Union forces depart: al-Shabaab is itself the offspring of an earlier Islamist group that was routed from Somalia in 2006. Somalia has been a country without an effective government since 1991, so it’s entirely too early to declare victory.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!