Nicolas Pelham has reported on the Arab world for over twenty years. His article in this issue will appear in different form in a forthcoming book on the Middle East, to be published by Columbia Global Reports in 2016. (June 2015)
“We’re ridding the world of polytheism, and spreading monotheism across the planet,” an ISIS preacher recently said in a video recording. Behind him one could see the ISIS faithful using sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the eighth-century-BC citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, ten miles northwest of Mosul in northern Iraq, and the colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls that had guarded it.
Mahdi al-Herati is sipping his lemon tea in the open-air café beneath the grand Italian porticos of Algiers Square in Tripoli. He seems a little too casual to be either an international jihadi or the elected mayor of the capital city of a country supposedly rescued from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and sliding into civil war. Still, Herati is both, although he prefers to call himself a Libyan revolutionary.
It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, many feel that only a strongman can hold Libya together. But who could it be?
Many books have been published on Libya since Qaddafi’s killing in October 2011. Most highlight his quixotic megalomania and the way Western leaders pandered to it in his last decade, reducing the forces and interest groups that grew up around him to bit players at best.* And yet Qaddafi was not quite the one-man show he is often portrayed as being.
In a region where politics is not only governance but popular theater, Jordan’s first parliamentary election since the eruption of the Arab Spring two years ago provided a brief moment of comic relief. In the heart of the capital, candidates erected marquees like vast Bedouin tents, and handed out coffee from Bedouin copper flasks. But for all the entertainment, King Abdullah II’s claims that Wednesday’s election would mark Jordan’s transition to democracy seemed hyperbolic. In fact, the election was boycotted by five opposition parties, including the oldest and most powerful, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a raft of former prime ministers, and even according to disputed official figures less than 40 percent of the kingdom’s voters bothered to register and vote.
As the uprising in Syria takes on an increasingly sectarian cast, Jordan has become a crucial center for the Islamist opposition—fighters, regime defectors, and their supporters, who speak of replacing the secular-Alawite regime with a new government that brings a Sunni majority to power. More extremist groups, like Jabhat al-Nasra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate based in and around Aleppo that wants to establish a caliphate, have strengthened their numbers with Jordanian recruits in the south, and are fighting to take the capital first. And while Jordan’s own secular monarchy contends with hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Syrian refugees, it is fearful that the conflict is also creating a powerful cause for its own restless Islamists.
The Bedouin have acquired real power across the peninsula. They have launched raids on Israel, hobbled and threatened to oust the multinational force that is supposed to protect the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty, and disrupted the region’s supply of gas, which passes via pipeline through their terrain.
The arrival in Gaza of the Emir of Qatar was the latest step by Arab governments to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the Palestinian Authority to the Islamist movement Hamas and could signal a historic shift in Palestinian politics. But a reconciliation with Egypt remains elusive, and Gaza’s economic recovery, largely dependent on underground trade to the Sinai, is precarious. And as Hamas turns away from its Islamist social welfare policies while struggling to contain more radical movements, there are new questions about its longevity. “We can’t keep ourselves imprisoned much longer,” a Hamas commander tells me as he slouches bootless under a makeshift tent at the tunnel mouths.
Since the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the Arab world aflame in December 2010, young men all over the Middle East have tried to imitate him. In no country have they done so more often than in Morocco, where some twenty men, with many of the same economic grievances, are reported to have self-immolated. Five succeeded in killing themselves, but none in sparking a revolution. It is not for want of causes. Morocco’s vital statistics are worse than Tunisia’s. One of every two youth are unemployed, and the number is rising. But whereas Ben Ali, Tunisia’s policeman, pigheadedly sought to keep power when the streets erupted in late 2010, Morocco’s po-faced but retiring King has kept one step ahead by offering to share it.
Since the declared end of the civil war last October, the violence in Libya’s south is worse than it was during the struggle to oust Muammar Qaddafi. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, according to UN figures, tens of thousands displaced in ethnic feuding. Without its dictator to keep the lid on, the country, it seems, is boiling over the sides.
To measure the sturdiness of King Abdullah of Jordan against the tide of upheaval sweeping the Arab world, go to Tafila, an impoverished town tucked into a sandy bowl encircled by the Moabite Mountains 110 miles south of the royal seat of Amman. Outside the courthouse where four youths recently awaited trial on charges of cursing the king, a crime punishable in this hitherto deferential kingdom by up to three years in jail, one hundred protesters continue cussing the king, until the order comes from on high to let the four go. Such protests are growing in intensity and geographic reach, degrading the royal stature with every chant.
Only when I reached Suq al-Juma, Tripoli’s sprawling eastern suburb of 400,000, three days after the rebels entered the city on August 21, did I feel I was somewhere free of Muammar Qaddafi’s yoke. In contrast to the deserted, shuttered streets elsewhere in the capital, the alleyways behind its manned barricades were a hive of activity. Children played outside until after midnight. Women drove cars. The mosques broadcast takbir, the celebratory chants reserved for Eid, the end of Ramadan, that God is Great, greater even than the colonel.
For a time after the NATO bombardment began, fears of Qaddafi’s return to the east receded. But after weeks of seeing their fortunes wane, rebel leaders who had fumed against any accommodation with Qaddafi now ask why Western powers are not more vigorously pursuing a cease-fire that might let them preserve their current holdings in the east. The alternative is ghastly. The sandstorm season in Libya is fast approaching, and under its cover, the colonel could yet send his pickup trucks, disguised with rebel flags, into Benghazi. Diplomats who had earlier said they were coming to stay are making contingency plans to flee within an hour’s notice, waving goodbye to free Libya.
Tucked between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, the Libyan town of Brega was a rather somnolent back-of-the-beyond place on the Gulf of Sidra in the north of the country. No longer. Brega, which sits on an oil lake, has become a battlefield in the fight against the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Bombs drop among oil depots filled with hundreds of thousands of barrels, and in the past two weeks, the company managers have had to deal with four changes of regime. To hedge bets they keep in touch with both the rebels in Benghazi, to the east, and the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli, to the west. The battle for Brega and a nearby but larger terminal, Ras Lanuf, has significantly upped the stakes in Libya’s conflict.
Two and a half weeks after shrugging off Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, the rebels are continuing their carnival outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the city on Libya’s east coast where they have made their headquarters. Roaring crowds taunt Qaddafi to send his planes and tanks, and promise to brave them as they did his anti-aircraft guns. Mannequins with military boots swing from lampposts, enacting the colonel’s hanging. Cartoon graffiti of him as Abu Shafshufa—literally “father of the fuzzy hair”—cover the surrounding walls. And in cafes broadcasting Arabic news, Qaddafi’s appearance triggers cries of zanga, zanga, or dead-end.