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Archives for February 2011

An uncomfortable encounter with Col Gaddafi

Matt Frei | 20:41 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011

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Gaddafi_standing.jpgCol Muammar Gaddafi has always straddled the unsettling line between mirth and menace. An odd fellow with a mercurial gaze, some very strange ideas (you should read his little Green Book) and a readiness to murder and maim to stay in power, which he has done successfully for more than four decades.

I interviewed him at Benghazi airport in 1992, when he was busy welcoming fellow Arab leaders to witness the opening of a giant irrigation project in the desert. There were many strange and unforgettable nuances about that day.

First Col Gaddafi displayed an obsession with cloaks. He insisted on wearing a different coloured Batman style cape for every leader who stepped off the plane. When he approached former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a silver number, Col Gaddafi suddenly stopped in his tracks on the red carpet, threw a tantrum, ripped off the silver cape and demanded a green one, proffered to him by a nervous looking sidekick. No one that day could explain to me the logic behind the colour-coding. But Col Gaddafi clearly cared deeply.

The second thing was the interview itself for BBC Radio. Col Gaddafi was sitting next to the then President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak on an ornate, golden sofa. They were sipping glasses of mint tea. A few days earlier former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had survived a coup against him, a coup which Col Gaddafi was one of the very few world leaders to vigorously support.

I asked him whether he didn't feel a little isolated now. Suddenly his answers switched from good English to angry Arabic. I couldn't understand what he was saying, and there was no translator. But suddenly, I felt a tight grip on both my arms and found myself getting removed from the premises. I wasn't going to argue with my handlers.

One of the men escorting me out turned round to me and said, waving a fleshy finger with a huge gold ring: "You must never say these things to the leader. Ever!" I never got another chance.

There are many reasons why London, Rome and Washington view the chaos in Libya with unease: the fate of their nationals still stuck at oil installations in the desert and the future of a tribally divided country, which does not have the luxury of the Egyptian army to keep it united.

All signs are that the army has split. The threat of real civil war is tearing at Libya, and the future of oil contracts is uncertain. Ever since George W Bush and Tony Blair engineered the international rehabilitation of the Dear Brother Leader, as the Colonel is less frequently referred to at home, the power and construction companies have been piling in to make a mint.

The regime may have been corrupt and brutal, but it became very easy to deal with if you were a foreign company. You knew exactly who to call and how to please. Those lines of communication have now been blurred if not cut.

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya - could Saudi Arabia be next? The oil futures market yearns for the recent past. US President Barack Obama's condemnation of the violence yesterday was relatively muted, considering the number of deaths. As Col Gaddafi contemplates his future, he may even have been breathing a sigh of relief. Libya's revolution is still very much a work in progress.

With Mubarak gone, time for Obama to earn that Nobel prize

Matt Frei | 14:08 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011

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demonstrators.jpgI don't wish to spoil the party. But when has People Power triumphed to defenestrate a strong man and usher in a Supreme Military Council?

It could be like the rottweilers taking over the chicken farm in Chicken Run? Or have the rottweilers discovered their inner chicken?

Egypt's strange revolution remains unfinished business until the generals usher in a genuine free election, scrap their emergency powers, oversee the rewriting of the constitution, allow non-military candidates to run and win, give up their privileges, cut back on the lavish lifestyles, and do all of this while tolerating what will probably be more demonstrations.

Let's just say, it's a big ask.

Unless this lot is different, generals typically like order. They abhor the unscripted messiness of political change. Will they really resist the temptation to let "stuff happen" and not impose law and order with an iron fist? Have they sacrificed Hosni Mubarak to keep themselves in power?

So far, Egypt's generals have played a clever game by doing the right thing and not wielding force. The people love them. The screens are full of soldiers being embraced by demonstrators. But how long will this love affair last?

Perhaps the Pentagon, with its lavish annual gift of $1.2bn (£750bn) in military aid, could lend a helping hand by threatening to curtail generosity if the people's army starts acting against the people. The White House will have to be nimble. Doing less may be more effective. But no more mixed messages, please.

The repercussions now also depend on what the administration says to the Israelis, hunkering down nervously, and to a host of Arab princes, emirs and presidents nervously twitching their embroidered curtains to see what's happening on the Arab street outside.

Suffice it to say, it's time for US President Barack Obama to earn his Nobel Peace Prize.

Historic revolutions shed light on Egypt unrest

Matt Frei | 17:50 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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egypt2345.jpgDon't trust a revolution by its slogans. Since 1789 when the sans-culottes rose up against Louis XVI, revolutions have been organic creatures, full of surprises and unscripted turns.

Writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, author of Zero Sum Future and interviewed tonight on WNA, has written an excellent account of how revolutions tend to morph.

The Egyptian one seems to have hit a lull. Tahrir Square resembles a cross between Speaker's Corner and the Hay on Wye Literary Festival. The mood is calm. The caravanserai has been organised with security checks, night watch shifts and cleaning details.

There is even a non-smoking area, which must be a first not just in the Arab world but for any revolution. Civic pride has been re-oxygenated by the new found freedom of expression. And gradually as the new normal sets in, the international cameras will turn away, their eyes glazing over with a lack of hour by hour excitement.

For the demonstrators, this is the maximum moment of danger. Deals could get done between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that ignore the basic civic principles of this revolution. At some stage, the military, which has stayed meticulously in the wings till now, could snap. Remember how the Tiananmen Square demonstration went on for weeks in a festive spirit before the Paramount leader Deng Xiao Ping decided that enough was enough. Even if the tanks stay silent, it is possible that this revolution will lurch from one stage to the next.

At the moment, no Israeli or American flags are being burnt. How rare is that? But frustration with the West and loathing for Israel simmers beneath the surface. After all, where would Mubarak and his crony generals be without America's help?

The Muslim Brotherhood is also playing a cautious game. They may well have become tamed after years in opposition. They look reassuring in their suits. But will they really insist on honouring the Camp David agreement?

The jury is surely out on that one. In Washington, we are inspired by the romantic narrative of a revolution. We hear educated voices - in fluent English - demanding finally to be heard. In Tehran, they are inspired by what they see as oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters finally thumbing their nose at an American puppet.

The stakes are huge for all sides. Tahrir Square has become the Great Game and this story is a work in progress, to put it mildly.

Retirement home for recalcitrant strongmen

Matt Frei | 22:16 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

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I have an idea whose time has come: the retirement home for recalcitrant strongmen. Mr Mubarak, you could be our founding guest/member. But you wouldn't be alone. Robert Mugabe, your suite awaits. Hugo Chavez, we need someone with your flair to keep the other guests entertained. I hear you're rather good at the piano. Alexander Lukashenko, we need some help with security.


I have a hunch that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is hiding a rather good golf swing behind that frown.

I suggest Switzerland as a location rather than Saudi Arabia, which already functions as the unofficial resting place for unwanted strongmen. Switzerland is, after all, neutral, picturesque and a favourite among well-heeled sanitarium seekers the world over. You would also be close to your bankers.

I can hear the howls of indignation. And, yes, we will get to the issue of accountability for past sins in a minute. But, first and foremost, this is about practicalities and avoiding the kind of messy, drawn-out transition that is turning Cairo into a battleground.

The reason Mr Mubarak is digging his heels in until September is that he wants to exit with dignity. Face is so important to people who have thrived on a personality cult.

But so many strongmen know that when it comes to retirement they are faced with few choices: they can be in power or they can languish in jail, or worse. There is very little compromise when so much is at stake.

Mr Mubarak's long and - as we discovered today - reluctant goodbye is a real cause for concern and chaos in Egypt. So in return for free board and lodging and escape from the mob, the strongmen could see out their days in the Swiss Alps. What's there not to like?

There would however be certain conditions. The guests would be required to wear national costume at all times during the day, including head dress. When sitting down for dinner they would be expected to sit on their thrones or presidential high chairs. Each meal would be preceded by the national anthems of each retiree. They would have to take all meals communally and when in their rooms they would have to listen to their best speeches on a never-ending loop. If that's not a definition of hell, what is?

I give them a few months before they will be screaming to be handed to the custodians of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. To face real justice in the serenity of a quiet cell and the comfort of prison pyjamas.

Storms rage at home and abroad

Matt Frei | 16:11 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011

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Storms are all the rage today.

A cyclone is ravaging Queensland. Ice, snow and wind are churning up everything between Texas and Maine.

It is a fitting backdrop for the political typhoon rearranging the furniture and toppling old certainties in the Middle East.

For once, demonstrations on the Arab Street do not involve burning Israeli flags. But make no mistake, Israel is terrified by the unscripted drama unfolding on all sides.

The neighbourhood hasn't felt this uncomfortable in decades. Although its relations with Egypt weren't exactly warm and fuzzy, Israel could always rely on President Hosni Mubarak.

Many people forget that the $1.7bn (£1.05bn) in US aid to Egypt is given as part of a package that stems from the Camp David peace accords.

Being cordial with Israel was written into the DNA of the Mubarak regime. The same can be said for Jordan, where the Hashemite monarchy is always feeling the bracing winds of change.

Israel is right to feel lonely and nervous, especially at a time when the region is in danger of going nuclear. In today's New York Times, Tom Friedman makes an excellent case for why Israel should - no, must - use this crisis as an opportunity finally to make a peace deal with the Palestinians before any new government in Cairo might change its mind about being friends with Israel.

Such a deal would, among other things, give the Israelis the cover they have never had in the region. If they can make peace with the Palestinians, the only reason for other Arab states not to is naked enmity.

At a dinner on Monday night I put this thesis to General Brent Scowcroft, a wise Washington veteran who has served and advised five presidents on national security.

He thought about it for a few seconds and then said that, sadly, the Israelis could be relied upon to do the exact opposite and batten down the hatches in stormy times like this.

Batten down by all means, but invite the Palestinians in first.

Has the Middle East caught the freedom bug?

Matt Frei | 23:30 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

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Protester with flags in Egypt

Have you noticed how Egypt's revolution is NOT named after a flower or a tree or a colour? Perhaps that's just as well because such labels don't always bode well. Remember how the euphoria of the Orange Revolution (Ukraine), the Rose Revolution (Georgia), the Cedar Revolution (Lebanon) or indeed the Green Revolution (Iran) ended? In the latter case the baby was strangled at birth. In the other cases the revolutionary ecstasy gave way to the frustration of elected government, deprived of the institutions and laws necessary to make democracies work.


When President Hosni Mubarak leaves, the same fate may await Egypt, with potentially more serious consequences for the region and beyond. So much now depends on how long and peaceful the stand-off is between the demonstrators who have smelt blood and a president who clings to hopes of a dignified departure. What are those Egyptian generals thinking tonight? Trust has been so badly eroded over the decades that Mubarak's eight-month glide path to retirement may be wishful thinking. Egypt is caught between an impatient street and a reluctant palace.

But one thing has changed beyond question. After the Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe, most of Asia and Latin America caught the virus of democracy. The only part of the world that seemed immune was the Middle East. Many wondered whether democracy and self determination simply weren't part of the Arab DNA, just at a time when the prevailing image coming out the region was extreme, fundamentalist, intransigent. America tried to inject the freedom bug by force and the patient reacted with allergies. Now in Tunisia and Egypt the people have done it themselves. Other countries are bound to follow - sooner or later.

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