Unrest in North Africa roils hopes for democracy
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's generals swept him from power last February after weeks of street protests, the military stepped in and ran the state. By November, the military junta itself was the target of massive protests that left dozens of civilians dead, hundreds detained, and called into question the stability of the country.
Egypt entered 2011 as one of the more stable Middle Eastern states. Despite a first round of national elections in late November, it enters 2012 with a growing list of questions about its future.
With the situation fluid—and violent—in Egypt, other North African countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring revolution are also struggling to move past decades of political repression while defining a way ahead.
Just days after NATO wrapped up Operation Unified Protector, which patrolled the skies over Libya through the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tripoli and said Europe didn't consider its work in Libya over. He pledged NATO's assistance in reforming the country's security and defense organizations “if so requested” by Libyan authorities. Rasmussen met with Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, and said NATO “would be prepared to offer the same kind of assistance as we have offered to other partners within defense and security sector reforms.” Any such advice and assistance would be to “help put defense and security agencies under civilian and democratic control. We can also help in organizing modern defense structures,” he added.
Still, the task ahead for Libyan authorities, and governments or organizations that want to help, is enormous given the social, economic and tribal rifts that exist after 42 years of Gadhafi's rule. There's hope that the oil that is again flowing from Libyan fields will bankroll the transition to democratic institutions, but oil revenues are hardly predictors of stability.
Andrew Lebovich, policy analyst for the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, says that the several political and ethnic groups that refuse to lay down their arms are probably the biggest threat to internal security in a post-Gadhafi Libya. The country's leaders also have a host of “ethnic issues that they're going to have to deal with at some time,” he adds, including tribes that had been suppressed by Gadhafi and are hence reluctant to lay down their arms. Then there is the issue of the stockpiles of thousands of Russian-made man-portable air-defense systems (Manpads) that have gone missing from arms depots, including the latest, very lethal SA-24, and stores of chemical weapons throughout the country.
Manpads, as well as heavy and light weapons, are “a big, big black spot” hanging over the region, Lebovich says. “We know that these weapons are gone. The question is, where have they gone?” Open-source reporting over the summer revealed that the price of surface-to-air missiles had gone down in the Sahel and West Africa. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, believed to be one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has boasted of obtaining Libyan weapons. There are also concerns that the uptick in violence in Algeria that began early last year—mostly roadside bombs planted by AQIM—was made possible in part by weapons and explosives smuggled out of Libya.
While Lebovich says that AQIM isn't a “genuine threat to [the] security” of the Algerian state, the violence is worrisome to the government, which lifted a 19-year state of emergency after the Arab Spring uprisings inspired antigovernment protests there. U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic assets have long been concerned about North Africa, and the post-Arab Spring era may usher in changes that belie the optimism suggested by the term.
Meanwhile, as shocking as Egypt's chaotic year was, some things remained the same. The same week in November that the second revolution brought more violence to the streets of Egyptian cities,announced a $395 million contract to sell 125 Abrams tanks to Egypt. The deal is part of a $1.33 billion contract that provides not only 125 new tanks (Egypt already has more than 1,000 Abrams tanks) but armament systems, 125 M2 .50-caliber machine guns and 250 M240 7.62-mm machine guns, as well as spare parts, maintenance, support and training.
The deal is hardly novel. The co-production agreement, which has General Dynamics shipping kits to Egypt for assembly at military factories, harkens back to the 1978 Camp David Accords, which pulled Egypt away from Soviet military equipment and hooked it up with the U.S. defense industry.