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Justin is researching a new history of the Middle East for Allen Lane.

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» Libya After Gaddafi – Spectator cover story

The question for Libyans, as they take their first momentous steps into the post-Gaddafi era, is whether they can now build a government and country worthy of their heroic struggle against one of the world’s worst tyrants.

For decades, conventional thinking about Arab nations, especially among the experts, argued that they were best ruled by ‘strongmen’, a western euphemism for pro-western dictators such as the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his former counterpart in Tunisia Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. According to this line of thought, Arabs don’t do democracy. They are too tribal and fractious for such enlightened politics. For western leaders, it has been a case of better the devil you know, and hang the consequences for the Arabs.

Yet the success in Libya, hard on the heels of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and those so far frustrated efforts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, suggests that Arabs from the Atlantic in the west to the Arabian Desert in the east are not willing to remain passive victims of dictatorships forever. We need to understand this new dynamic and support it. In the British media, however, there is a tendency to seek out the most pessimistic scenario, for Libya and the Arab world more widely.

Where Libyans talk of creating a new Dubai on the shores of the Mediterranean, sceptics mutter about another Somalia. Where optimists like the lavishly maned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy pay tribute to the extraordinary breadth of interests represented by the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, cynics spot al-Qa’eda moving in to capitalise on the instability and point to the emergence of Islamists in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia. Instead of hailing the council’s success at maintaining security, we are supposed to believe that the single assassination in Benghazi of rebel commander General Abdul Fattah Younes invalidates the entire Libyan campaign. It doesn’t.

When David Cameron took the lead in pushing for a no-fly zone back in February, the doom-mongers were already queuing up to denounce what they considered yet another Iraq or Afghanistan. As the campaign progressed, they were quick to detect a ‘stalemate’. The rebels were inevitably ‘divided’. Nato’s campaign, they argued, was ‘running into the sand’. The Italians wobbled, the French faltered (peace talks, anybody?), but London remained resolute. The prime minister maintains it was ‘necessary, legal and right’ to intervene in Libya. He’s been proved right.
Admiral James Stavridis, Nato’s head of Allied Command Operations, says that the key components of success were the legality provided by the UN Security Council mandate, Nato’s ability to draw on a sophisticated command and logistic structure in the Mediterranean, a shared burden of responsibility among the allies and realistic goals (establishing a no-fly zone, introducing an arms embargo and protecting civilians). To these could be added strong regional support against Gaddafi and an increasingly effective and emboldened opposition.

No one would be foolish enough, however, to suggest that it is ‘mission accomplished’ in Libya. Stavridis tells me that challenges abound: ‘The keys will be the new regime’s ability to establish coherent security and basic services, cope with the return of hundreds of thousands of Libyans now in refugee camps across the borders, avoid bloodshed and retribution, create governance along the lines suggested by the National Transitional Council — which include dates and benchmarks to full democracy and elections — and get the economy up and functioning, principally the energy sector.’

That is a tall order for any established government, let alone a transitional council. There is no question that the challenges facing Libyans after Gaddafi are monumental. After 42 years of monomaniacal rule, it would be perverse to think otherwise.
Pessimists will have plenty to cheer in the coming weeks and months. The age-old differences between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east will resurface from the very outset. Some politicians may prefer pistols to parliaments when vying for power or resolving a difference of opinion. Small tribes may feel disenfranchised by the larger, stronger ones. A predominantly command economy cannot be restructured overnight. Oil, that unrivalled lubricant of corruption, will test the mettle and integrity of Libya’s new leaders. It will also test to breaking point the patience of long-suffering Libyans, who have watched the Gaddafi clan plunder the national wealth for four decades.

Shukri Ghanem, the former oil minister, estimates it will take 18 months for Libya to get back to its pre-war level of oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day. That will be much too slow for all those Libyans who believe they have already waited long enough. A generation of Libyan leaders unaccustomed to addressing their fellow citizens will urgently need to communicate the scale of the challenges facing the country. Chaos is likely to loom on the sidelines. As Ronald Bruce St John writes in Libya: From Colony to Independence, after four decades spent studying the country, the post-Gaddafi era will be ‘a time of considerable tension and uncertainty, with numerous socioeconomic and political groups vying for power’.

So what reasons are there for cautious optimism? Well, so far the rebel leadership has barely put a foot wrong. With few resources, it has kept the peace across eastern Libya. The fact there has only been one high-level assassination to date is a remarkable success, not a telling indictment. Assisted by the UN, the UK and the US, the Council has drawn up a detailed stabilisation plan for the immediate post-Gaddafi era. More impressively, it has drafted a 37-point ‘constitutional declaration’ which, if enacted, moves Libya towards elections for a constitutional assembly within eight months. This body would appoint a transitional government, draft a constitution to be offered to Libyans for approval in a national referendum, and hold direct elections for a democratic government within 20 months. If, as is suggested, Jordan leads the international community’s transition to democracy team, with the West reduced to providing air cover, that is another encouraging sign. Fellow Arabs should make a better fist of it. No one wants another western boots-on-the-ground intervention.

So much for plans and political theory. What else of Libya and its people? If the rebels I met in my two recent visits to Libya are any guide, the omens are good. They were not vicious zealots or Islamists, but civilised and well-educated people intent on restoring peace and order as soon as they possibly could. Unlike Iraqis, who have been cutting each other’s heads off with gusto at least since the founding of Baghdad in 762, if not much longer, Libya is not riven by sectarian division. The tribes may have their tensions, but there is no Sunni-Shia split. As Guma al Gamaty, the UK co-ordinator for the rebel council, says, ‘We have no ethnic, religious or sectarian differences. We’re the most homogenous Arab society in the world.’ Libya’s Berbers might beg to differ, of course, but the point is well made.

Libyans have also been blessed with fortunate resources and geography. With even a half-decent government in place, the population of seven million should prosper from the black gold beneath the sand, 47 billion barrels of reserves and counting, together with 1.3 trillion cubic metres of gas. Given the immense oil reserves on one hand, and the tiny population on the other, the fact that a third of Gaddafi’s Libya has lived at or below the national poverty line shows the extent of his misrule.

Earlier this summer, I spoke to one businessman in Benghazi who told me, ‘I remember Sheikh Zayed of Dubai coming to Tripoli for an eye operation in 1978. He saw the city and said, “My God, I wish I could make Dubai like this.” Can you believe that?’
Since then Dubai has grown and developed, while Tripoli has stagnated. But now can Libya follow Dubai’s example? It might sound preposterous. There is no law which states that Libya must now descend into anarchy and civil war, nor is there any guarantee of freedom and democracy. Yet the chances of success here are higher than those in any other Arab country yet to take on its dictator. The truth, as every Libyan knows, is that the opportunity is theirs for the taking.

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» Inside the world of Somalia’s pirates – Literary Review

Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates
By Jay Bahadur

There’s nothing like getting your boots on the ground. Not if you’re a British, French or American soldier in Libya, perhaps, where we must hope there are as few foreign boots as possible, but if you’re a writer or journalist chasing a difficult story, there’s no substitute for dropping what you’re doing, telling the wife/husband you love her/him and will return with all sorts of exotic, possibly sparkling, presents, flying out there and getting on with it.

Hats off, then, to the 27-year-old Jay Bahadur who quit his job in market research in 2008, just as the Somali pirates story was commanding the world’s attention, and made his slightly tortuous way into Somalia to research the story for himself. Although six weeks in Garowe, the capital of the autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia, does not quite constitute immersion – certainly not by the more formidable standards of the nineteenth century, when British travellers and explorers tended to be more diligent with their language studies and cultural research – it is nevertheless rather more time than your average journalist is able to spend on assignment in “Mog” or “The Dish”. As a result, Deadly Waters is a lively read, full of heartfelt insight and compelling detail into this little understood world.

Sometimes there’s not so much difference between the corridors of power in Washington or London and a remote corner on the Horn of Africa. It all comes down to connections in the end. When you’re investigating an issue that can be sensitive at the best of times, where an incautious question can have a fatal response, it’s no bad thing to team up with the son of Abdirahman Farole, Puntland’s recently elected president. The fact that said son Mohammed is also a journalist makes you think Bahadur lucked out from the start.

With two journalists at work, colour comes naturally to this portrait of Somali pirates. There’s gossip in spades, all manner of anecdotal observation, a window onto backroom dealings and daily life in one of the more unusual parts of the planet.

Somalis like Boyah, the first pirate we meet, refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or saviours of the sea, sometimes translated as coastguard. Boyah is the self-appointed, headline-grabbing “Chief of the Coastguard, with a CV much like those of his fellow buccaneers.

Fourteen years ago, he was a lobster diver in Eyl. After foreign fishing fleets devastated the reefs with steel-pronged dragnets, he moved into kidnapping foreign fishing boats in the mid-Nineties, before moving onto less well protected commercial vessels. Boyah’s role is to recruit pirates, provide finance and command piracy missions. With 85-150 horsepower engines, the pirates’ skiffs are almost impossible to outrun. In any case, resistance is extremely rare. Once the captured ships are taken back into Eyl, ransom negotiations soon begin, the almost inevitable prelude to cash being parachuted onto the ship’s deck. Half of the loot goes to the hijackers, a third to the financiers, 20 per cent to the army of helpers with a dollop given as charitable donation to the poorest families in the local community.

Bahadur is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom along the way. He notes, for example, that the One Earth Future think-tank has come up with a figure of $238m for the estimated income Somali pirates earned in 2010, a statistic that others, including The Economist, have repeated. Bahadur unpicks the lazy assumptions that lie behind the calculation and comes up with $65m-85m, still more than you need for a takeaway curried goat but a third of the “official” figure. He takes a combative, mostly justified line, on received opinion on Somalia.

As for possible solutions to Somali piracy, however superficially attractive upping the ante sounds to outside observers, Bahadur is right to note that with a fraction of one per cent of all vessels passing through “pirate waters” being successfully hijacked, for the time being at least paying ransoms is “an economically sustainable solution for the long term”, the caveat being the spike in ransom sums demanded.

Since the problem of piracy lies on land, rather than at sea, it is there that any answer must be found. Some of Bahadur’s prescriptions, such as stepping up the security measures adopted by ships, are perfectly sound. Others, like financing “an effective and well-paid Puntland police force” and funding an expansion of Puntland’s prison system, look reasonable enough but do not sufficiently take into account the capacity of the international community to make a complete hash of anything it touches. It doesn’t take much imagination, for example, to envisage the palatial splendour of Garowe head of police’s new mansion, the endemic corruption of his officials, and the thoroughly ineffectual force that would result.

At the end of the book, Bahadur reflects on the fate of Boyah, the pirate who couldn’t quite retire. Arrested under pressure from the US, he looked likely to go down for life, a decision Bahadur applauds as “free of the nepotistic proclivities bred by Somali clannism”, since the miscreant was part of the president’s sub-clan.

This is all very well, and I have heard the same sentiments expressed by many Somalis in Mogadishu and Nairobi – usually from those clans with least power – but to expect Somali politicians to be able to operate without clan loyalties in the back of their minds, if not in the very forefront, is unrealistic. Above all, it goes against Somali culture.

Earlier this year, I remember a venerable Somali statesman, a former state governor of Mudug, tell me the best thing for the international community to do in Somalia was “get out of it altogether”. Rather than keep the clans out of the picture, he had a very different solution in mind. “Just get the clans together with their elected representatives. History shows they’ll take decisions by consensus and agree. Everything comes down to clan in Somalia. There’s no other way.”

After 20 years of the international community’s failed prescriptions, each one ending in domestic disappointment, perhaps it is time for Somalia’s clans to play the leading role in fixing the country’s deep-seated problems, of which piracy is but one manifestation. They could hardly do worse than the international “experts”.

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» Neglect of Somalia will have high price

The west is easily distracted. Just as the war in Iraq diverted attention from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to regroup and consolidate its hold over much of the country, so the war in Afghanistan has blinded policymakers to the growing crisis in Somalia. Islamist rebels who on Tuesday killed more than 30 people including MPs and officials in a raid on a hotel in Mogadishu are now exporting terrorism beyond its borders. Somalia poses a genuine danger to the Horn of Africa region and the west.

Last month’s twin bomb attacks in Uganda’s capital Kampala, which killed 76 people, changed the rules of the game. They marked the first time the al-Shabaab group, which controls much of southern Somalia and most of Mogadishu, had struck outside the country. At a stroke a hitherto local conflict within a marginal country that has not had a government since 1991 was internationalised. Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabaab’s leader, warned this was “just the beginning”.

While Washington and London have concentrated on Afghanistan, al-Shabaab has been recruiting foreign fighters. In February, it announced an alliance with al-Qaeda. It is now the strongest armed faction in the country. Jihadists commute freely between Yemen and Somalia across the Gulf of Aden. The southern Somali port of Kismayo has become a logistics hub, allowing the movement of men and materiel into Somalia. For Somalis, the rise of these extremists has been a catastrophe. Daily life is characterised, by Human Rights Watch as “grinding repression” against a backdrop of public beheadings, and stoning of women accused of adultery.

Al-Shabaab’s rise is a threat to the international community on two levels. First, Somalia is becoming a safe haven for foreign fighters schooled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, the group has recruited successfully from the Somali diaspora. The suicide bomber who killed 23 people during a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu last December was a Danish Somali. One of the group’s highest-profile fighters is a Somali-American. Somali-Australians have already tried, unsuccessfully, to attack an Australian military base. The International Crisis Group has warned of the dangers to the US and UK, both of which have large Somali communities.

How can the world help Somalia pull back from the brink? It is tempting to dismiss this as too difficult and dangerous. Internal conflict has been endemic for two decades. Washington recalls too well the Black Hawk Down debacle of 1993. Yet the Kampala attacks underline the folly of “constructive disengagement”, as advocated in a Council on Foreign Relations paper. It was disengagement from Somalia not engagement that led to the current crisis.

The first practical step is to reinforce the under-resourced African Union force (Amisom). Raising troop levels to 10,000-12,000 would allow it to expel al-Shabaab from Mogadishu, freeing civilians from the fighting and allowing President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government to start providing basic public services. More troops are no guarantee of success, yet under-resourcing a peacekeeping mission guarantees failure.

Retaking Mogadishu will also provide Somalis with the opportunity to engage in reconciliation because ultimately it will be Somalis, not outsiders, who solve the problems. Devolved decision-making is required. Last month the autonomous region of Somaliland showed a way ahead when it held largely peaceful elections in which the incumbent president stood down after the victory of the opposition candidate.

Donors must also get serious. It is unrealistic to expect the fledgling administration to behave like a government without adequate resources. In the UN’s report on Somalia last December, it was reported that of the $58m pledged by foreign donors in Brussels in 2009, the government had received just $5.6m. Little wonder soldiers who have not been paid in months are defecting to the better funded al-Shabaab. In return Mr Ahmed needs to pave the way for a new constitution and election to allow Somalis to choose a government.

The world can no longer look away. As General Nathan Mugisha, Amisom’s commander, told me in Mogadishu last month, “If the international community is serious about Somalia, it’s not a complicated problem to solve. But it’s getting more difficult by the day.”

The writer is a senior adviser at Albany Associates

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