BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for February 2011

In Helmand province to assess claims of progress

Mark Urban | 18:23 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

LASHKAR GAH - While the turmoil in the Arab world continues to dominate the headlines, I have made a beeline for Helmand province in Afghanistan.

This town is its capital. This afternoon, I was out in the Bolan Bazaar, which was a riot of oranges, nuts, cell phone cards, and all manner of merchandise.

It is not that I have a deliberate desire to avoid North Africa or the Gulf, and the extraordinary events going on there (far from it); it is more that these trips take time to organise.

This one has come up after months of preparation, and when good opportunities are available I don't like to miss them.

The main mission of the BBC team I am with here is to gather material for a special one hour documentary charting the history of the Western intervention in Helmand since 2005.

But I will also be preparing something for Newsnight that we hope to put out in the next few weeks.

There has been quite a lot of talk of progress here in recent months.

There have been false dawns before, so even though the conversation now tends to be littered with caveats it is nevertheless beginning to assume a steady up beat pattern.

You could easily argue that there ought to be progress because the resources now being thrown into this fight are enormous.

There are more than 30,000 Nato troops in Helmand and Afghan security forces nearing 20,000.

The Soviet army garrison here was just 2,500, with its Afghan allies numbering about twice that number.

Today's foreign intervention is much more ambitious in its scope though. Whereas the Soviet army simply aimed to hold this town and the nearby commercial centre of Gereshk, Nato is trying to pacify the whole province, while improving its poor governance.

So, my task in the coming days will be to see whether this effort is indeed bearing fruit, as its advocates claim.

The political process that is underway in Egypt

Mark Urban | 16:46 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

We've got a much better idea in the past couple of days about the political process that is underway in Egypt.

We can also see more clearly how the principal forces in this battle - Egypt's security establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood - are trying to out manoeuvre one another.

The Brotherhood appears to see the current crisis as an important stage in its decades-long struggle against repression and is not aiming for a rapid solution.

Instead it is trying to soothe those who might be alarmed by its rise (the secular and Christians at home; those abroad who fear political Islam) with carefully formulated political messages: the Brotherhood will not put forward a candidate for the presidency in the polls due in September; it will respect all cultures; it will respect Egypt's international treaty obligations.

At the same time, one can infer that the Brotherhood wants to improve its representation in parliament substantially. Candidates affiliated to the Brotherhood did well in 2005, and are likely to do even better in the next elections, particularly if the regime is pressured into allowing a fair campaign.

The security establishment, for its part, is deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood, although it appears ready to allow it greater freedom of action. The old guard, is now personified by vice president General Omar Sulayman, who, the Wikileaks cables show, has frequently warned the US about the dangers presented by the Islamic group.

At the weekend Gen Sulayman held talks with the opposition, including the Brotherhood. This was progress, no doubt, but it is easy to imagine the suspicion with which those around the table regarded each other.

The opposition declared it was unhappy with the outcome of the talks and that demonstrations would continue. The security establishment, for its part was ready to throw some of its members to the wolves, allowing investigations to move ahead on several key officials.

What all of this suggests is that we may now be in for a prolonged period of political manoeuvring. The American envoy, apparently sensing this, surprised many by stating that president Mubarak ought to remain in place until, September to oversee the transition.

The coming weeks or months promise all manner of tough talking about the elections, constitutional changes, and the fate of many leading personalities including President Mubarak himself. Protest and violence will be an intrinsic part of this negotiation.

As the security bosses and the Muslim Brotherhood seek their accommodations, both the president and many of the protesters in Tahrir square may prove expendable.

Mubarak gets a crackdown which he can deny

Mark Urban | 18:16 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Have we witnessed an effective authoritarian response to people power today in Cairo's Tahrir Square?

Sending club wielding gangs of "supporters" into action has denied the pro-democracy protestors the kind of iconic image of oppression that come out of China when a man stood in front of a column of tanks in 1989.

Earlier this week, I wrote about why we should not under-estimate the forces of conservatism in Egypt.

But like many of a Western mindset, I supposed that uniformed servants of the state, like the black-clad Interior Ministry forces who we saw in action last week, might form the visible face of a crackdown.

It is clearer now why protestors in Tahrir Square had recently been searching those joining the protest, looking for weapons or police ID cards.

They were not being paranoid, they understood that President Hosni Mubarak and his newly installed vice-president, former intelligence boss Omar Suleiman, had some other options at their disposal.

The use of agents provocateurs to discredit political opponents by sparking acts of violence goes back centuries.

What would be new though is using entire crowds to clear the streets of demonstrators, when the fact that the world is watching makes it impossible to do that with tanks or riot police.

With these "supporters" Mr Mubarak can deny that he has ordered a crackdown.

He can also claim to Western governments who urge him to rein them in, that they are not under his personal control and that his critics are exhibiting double standards about street protest - it is fine when they are anti-Mubarak, but not when they support him.

Of course the arrival of this new force on the streets has infuriated pro-democracy protestors. Many are predicting that it could lead to an ugly escalation in violence.

As night fell in Cairo, the air was crackling with gunfire as the army fired "warning shots".

The fact that the army today issued a statement urging the anti-Mubarak crowds to go home begins to look like part of a joined up strategy.

The anti-Mubarak campaign may well be tempted to use more force in response to today's developments - and there are some signs that this is happening spontaneously in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

But if street violence is met with counter violence, then Egypt's security bosses would have their excuse for a more conventional type of crackdown - and will be able to cite "growing anarchy" as their excuse for doing so.

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