From the Egypt Desk

Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old man trying to support his family by selling fruits and vegetables in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, had his produce cart confiscated by police because he lacked a permit. He was beaten when he resisted. Local officials then refused his hear his complaint.  On December 17th, he doused himself in paint thinner and set himself ablaze in front of a local municipal office. Bouazizi’s act of desperation highlights the public’s boiling frustration over living standards, police violence, rampant unemployment, and a lack of human rights. The protests begin in Sidi Bouzid that same day. They quickly spread across the region, then the country.

Four weeks and sixty-six dead later, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president, flew out of the country, first for Malta, then Paris, before finally turning toward the Gulf, where he was allowed to land in Jeddah [Saudi Arabia]. An indigenous revolt against a repressive Arab regime is, in this interconnected world, echoing across the North African rim (Algeria, Libya and Egypt) onto the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) and into the Levant (Jordan).

On Tuesday, January 25th, crowds took to the streets of Cairo in what they called “a day of revolution”, petitioning against the very same things that propelled Mr Bouazizi and the crowds in Tunisia – high unemployment, high prices, lack of opportunity, and a non-responsive, corrupt and repressive government. Since the beginning, the Egyptian crowds have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. Notable is the mix of the crowd – young and old, poor and middle class, and, as of Saturday (the 29th), women. The harsh reaction of police prompted Thursday’s “day of rage” protests in Cairo, during which Egypt’s internal security forces – with the anti-riot paramilitaries of the Central Security Forces (CSF) at the forefront, were completely overwhelmed. American television was rife with images of protesters sitting atop armored police vehicles, cheering and holding their placards. By just after midnight on Friday morning [local time], all police presence had vanished from the streets, having been replaced by the military, which, unlike their CSF counterparts, have largely been welcomed by the demonstrators. At 30 minutes past midnight, President Mubarak appeared on TV, announcing that he had asked his government to resign so that he could appoint new ministers on Saturday. No mention of his stepping down.

Mubarak will not politically survive this uprising. The replacement of cabinet ministers didn’t placate the crowds – “He’s blaming the government!” was a common response.

President Mubarak’s recent moves reveal a growing influence of the military on political affairs. Outgoing Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman is now Vice President (removing the threat of the dynastic succession of Mubarak’s son). Meanwhile, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Egypt’s chief of staff of the armed forces, Lieutenant General Sami Annan are likely managing the political process behind the scenes. More political shuffles are expected, and the military appears willing for now to give Mubarak the time to arrange his political exit. Until Mubarak finally does leave, the unrest in the streets is unlikely to subside, raising the question of just how much more delay from Mubarak the armed forces will tolerate.

As I write this on Sunday morning, BBC is announcing that the Muslim Brotherhood is backing opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which brings us to the dangerous aspect of the Egyptian situation.

Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second in command of the al Qaeda core, is an Egyptian and came from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic supremacist organization that formed Hamas in Gaza. Having been banned as a political party by Mubarak (they typically poll at around 20% of the electorate), they will be unable to sit on the sidelines as Egyptians try to remove Mubarak. And they aren’t.

The Egyptian police are no longer patrolling the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hamas armed men are entering into Egypt and are closely collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fully engaged in the demonstrations, and are unsatisfied with the dismissal of the Cabinet. They are insisting on a new Cabinet that does not include members of [Mubarak’s] ruling National Democratic Party.

Security forces in plainclothes are engaged in destroying public property in order to give the impression that many protesters represent a public menace. The Muslim Brotherhood is meanwhile forming people’s committees to protect public property and also to coordinate demonstrators’ activities, including supplying them with food, beverages and first aid. With Egypt in a state of crisis and the armed forces stepping in to manage that crisis, however, elections are nowhere near assured. One misfire in the demonstrations, and a bloodbath in the streets could quickly foil the military’s plans and give way to a scenario that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood quickly could exploit. Here again, I worry about the military’s tolerance for Mubarak as long as he is the source fueling the demonstrations. What is now in question is what groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others are considering should they fear that their historic opportunity could be slipping.

There are four possible outcomes to the chaos in Egypt.

First, the regime might survive. Mubarak might stabilize the situation, or more likely, another senior military official would replace him after a decent interval. Another possibility under the scenario of the regime’s survival is that there may be a coup of the colonels, the historic power transition pathology of Egypt. In this version, the de facto military scaffold supporting Egyptian society remains, backing a leader who addresses the existential problems of governance.

A second possibility is that the demonstrators might force elections in which ElBaradei or someone like him could be elected and Egypt might overthrow the statist model built by Nasser and proceed on the path of democracy. Underlying this path is a tanglefoot of military v police; military v Muslim Brotherhood; military resistance to power-sharing; and so on. A genuine transition to popular government in Egypt will require an acceptable interim government to stabilize institutions and lay the groundwork for legitimate political competition.

The third possibility is that the demonstrators force elections, which the Muslim Brotherhood could win and move forward with an Islamist-oriented agenda. Although the Brotherhood has never mustered more than 20% of the electorate, under chaotic conditions, being the only organized opposition [to the current regime] group, a quick election represents their best chance of electoral success.

The fourth possibility is that Egypt will sink into political chaos. The most likely path to this would be elections that result in political gridlock in which a viable candidate cannot be elected.

If I were forced to choose, I would bet on the regime stabilizing itself and Mubarak leaving Egypt in the hands of an interim government headed by now-Vice President Suleiman or one of the generals. Because of the relative apolitical nature and diversity of the demonstrators, no de facto leader has emerged. This is not a revolt of personality, rather one plainly against Mr Mubarak. The longer he takes to arrange his exit, the higher the risk that extremism wins out.

But that’s a guess and not a forecast.


Ryan Rifai, Timeline: Tunisia’s civil unrest, al Jazeera, January 23 2001.

The Egyptian Unrest: A Special Report, STRATFOR, January 29 2011.

Unrest in Egypt: President Mubarak dissolves Cabinet after night of protests, CNN, January 28 2011.

STRATFOR, op cit.

Red Alert: Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, STRATFOR, January 29 2011

Clancy meets Creighton

According to reports Sunday in both the New York Times and Jerusalem Post, the US and Israel, with supporting roles played by Germany and England, created the stuxnet virus and unleashed it on Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, destroying over a third of their centrifuges.

A controller problem at DoE’s Idaho National Laboratory [Idaho Falls] in 2008 required a fix by Siemens, maker of the controller. In discussing the problem with our Israeli counterparts, a plan was hatched and presented to the Bush administration that would create a similar piece of malicious code to insert in Iran’s centrifuge controllers at Natanz, also made by Siemens. The plan was approved.

The following year, in what I call the Michael Creighton part of the story, stuxnet was completed and tested on a mirror centrifuge array at Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. Tom Clancy then took over, infecting the computers at Natanz and wrecked their array before the problem was discovered.

The worm, which moves from machine to machine, seeking out a computer containing software called Step 7, which programs and monitors the Siemens controllers. Upon finding the host machine, stuxnet inserted itself into the code, replacing the relevant lines, and took control of the centrifuge array. NSA’s Red Team, apparently in collaboration with Mossad’s cyber-stalkers, developed the worm, and CIA, possibly still in collaboration with Mossad, got it into Iran. Stuxnet can propagate either over the internet or from a flash drive, and since Siemens controllers are ubiquitous in the worldwide nuclear power industry, I assume that it was somehow infiltrated directly into Iran on a thumb drive that someone plugged into a computer that accesses their intramet (you gotta love that Tom Clancy). The virus showed up on some personal computers of Bushehr nuclear power plant workers in its tireless search for the Step 7 software. Once it found the host machine, it secretly copied a day’s worth of activity until it recorded a nominal day’s activity. On the day it took control of the array, it played back the nominal day’s activity to the monitoring dashboard and went about destroying centrifuges. Stuxnet managed to trash over a thousand of them before dysfunction became impossible to hide and the array was shut down.

Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to arbitrary levels of purity hasn’t been eliminated. You can’t cause someone to unlearn something. But their ability to do so in short order has been. A commercial enrichment facility would contain on the order of 5,000 centrifuges daisy-chained to produce an output stream capable of keeping the rest of the weapons development infrastructure working. Iran had around 3,000 in their array, and 1,000 or so of them are now unusable. This cuts their enrichment capacity to about 40% of acceptable HEU volume, adding a year or so to Iran’s producing a viable nuclear weapon, all other things being equal. As such, an objective BDA of the stuxnet attack would classify it as partially successful – disruptive, but the asset wasn’t destroyed.

Although this outcome to the stuxnet saga – that we actually did it – is my preferred version of events, the troubling part is that, again, we are learning about it. I guess being an old Cold Warrior leaves scars, but these kinds of operation (i.e., the successful ones) should never meet the light of day, and if correctly guessed or leaked, should be vehemently denied by all concerned.

Ishmael’s Revenge

From Adam to Noah to Shem to Abram, the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions are one. In around 1800BC, Semitic tribal leader Abram’s Egyptian concubine, Hagar, bore him a son, Ishmael, whereupon God told Abram that his aged wife, Sarah, would conceive and bear him a son, and that he (Abram) was henceforth to be known as Abraham [Abra’am, in the original Hebrew; Ibrahim, in Arabic]. Indeed, Sarah did conceive and bear Abraham a son, Yitz’chak [Isaac], whereupon she (Sarah) insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be banished from the tribe. Isaac remained in Canaan, and his descendants, the Hebrews, founded Judaism, into which was born Jesus of Nazareth. Hagar and Ishmael went into Arabia, where his descendants became the Arabs, into which was born Mohammed.

If pedigree follows birthright, then notice that, according to the Torah, Bible and Qur’an, the Hebrews came to Judaism while in Canaan.

In the late 13th century-BC, Moses led the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt and back into Canaan. During the late-11th and early-10th centuries-BC, in the land that had become known as Eratz Israel (Hebrew: עמק יזרעאל‎, Emek Yizre’el), Saul, Solomon and David presided over a period of prosperity and success. The capitol of Eratz Israel was established at Yerusale’em (Jerusalem) during this period.

In 63BC the Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem (and the region of the whole of eastern shore of the Mediterranean) and made it a client kingdom of Rome. Herod the Great was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40BC. Jesus and John the Baptist were born during this period. Pontius Pilate is appointed governor of the Roman province of Judea in 26AD, John the Baptist is beheaded and Jesus is crucified during this period.

After the death of Nero, and with the backing of the army, Vespasian was proclaimed emperor in 69, and left for Rome to take the throne from Vitellius in a brief Roman civil war[1]. The siege of Jerusalem had begun early in the war, turning into a nasty stalemate. Titus eventually wiped out the last remnants of Jewish resistance, destroying the Second Temple in the process. After a revolt failed in the year 70AD, Titus took measures to suppress the rebellious province. He was so determined that nearly three years after the destruction of Jerusalem he was still hunting down Jews, including (in 73AD) a determined band that held the mountain fortress, Masada. The defeat of the Jewish revolts by the Roman Empire contributed substantially to the numbers and geography of the Jewish Diaspora, as many Jews were scattered throughout the Empire or sold into slavery after losing their state. To use this event – the cleansing of Jews from Israel – as establishing legitimacy for present-day “Palestinians” is to argue for pedigree-follows-combat, legitimizing the current Israeli claim to their current (i.e., post-1967) borders.

In 610, the Sassanid Empire [Persia] drove the Byzantine Empire [Turkey] out of the Middle East with the help of the Jews of Babylonia, who were given governorship over Eratz Yizre’el[2]. Also in 610, Mohammed ibn Abdallah [of the clan of Hashim], the 40-year-old leader of the tribe of Quraysh, received what he said to be the words of the angel Gabriel (or the jinn Gabriel, or Allah himself, depending upon to which version of events you are listening), which were conveyed to him [Mohammed] in Arabic, and were said to be from Allah, the God of Abraham and the supreme and sole deity. For the next 22 years, Mohammed would receive revelations, which would, in their aggregate, become the Qur’an [The Word of Allah], inspire the Hadith [the quotations and anecdotes of Mohammed], and through interpretation, generate the shari’ah [rightful law]. Islam was born.

Although started among largely pagan Arabs[3], the formulation of Islam was influenced by Judaism and Christianity. Through his studies, Mohammed concluded that the Arabs were the “other” children of Abraham – through the line of his son Ishmael by the Egyptian concubine Hagar – and that they had forgotten the teachings of monotheism they had inherited ages ago. He saw his mission as bringing them back. Paul Johnson explains:

What [Mohammed] seems to have wished to do was to destroy the polytheistic paganism of the oasis culture by giving the Arabs Jewish ethical monotheism in a language they could understand and in terms adapted to their ways. He accepted the Jewish God and their prophets, the idea of fixed law embodied in scripture – the Qur’an being the Arabic substitute for the Semite Bible – and the addition of an Oral Law applied in religious courts[4].

The rise and domination of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula resulted in the almost complete destruction and decimation of the ancient Jewish communities there[5], to include Yathrib (now Medina, the second holiest city in Islam).

It was in Yithrab – heretofore called Medina, “the city of the prophet” – that Islam took hold in a major way. Once he had made Medina his stronghold, Mohammed mobilized an army of 10,000 men and, in 630, moved against Mecca, meaning to purify the Kaaba and turn it into a center of worship of the one God, Allah. His success is legendary. Two years later, when he died, all of Arabia was under Muslim control.

From the Prophet Mohammed to the Ottomans, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of an oft-astonishing imperial aggressiveness and, no less important, of never quiescent imperial dreams and repeated fantasies of revenge and restoration[6]. These fantasies gained rapid momentum during the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in its disastrous decision to enter World War I on the losing side, as well as in the creation of an imperialist dream that would survive the Ottoman era to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics into the 21st century.

The “Palestinian problem” is not a demonstrable concern of Arabs – Jordan expelled them after they threatened to overthrow the kingdom, Egypt could have offered them large tracts of coastal Sinai (but haven’t), and neither Lebanon nor Syria has offered up anything but squalid refugee camps.

Palestinians with a cause are more useful to Arabs than Palestinians with a flag.

This is the historical context into which this, or any other, administration steps to broker a solution to this 3,800-year-old dispute.


[1] The so-called “Year of the Four Emperors”.

[2] At least at this point, the Persians knew who the rightful residents of “Palestine” were.

[3] Before the advent of Islam, most Arabs worshipped a variety of male and female deities. Only a minority, who were neither Christians nor Jews, were monotheists (hanif). Despite the vagaries of frequent feuds and raids (ghazwa), Arab tribes from surrounding areas journeyed to Mecca during truce months to worship at the polytheist shrine of the Ka’ba. The tribe of Quraysh in Mecca enjoyed special prestige as keepers of the Ka’ba, as well as political and economic prominence built on fortunes drawn from trade.

[4] Paul Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 167. This neatly describes Mohammed’s methodology as he designed Islam to fit the people and the environment.

[5] During Jewish clashes with the Empire, Jews fled to areas outside of Roman control and founded many towns and villages in Arabia, including the city of Yathrib. In Arabia, whole tribes converted to Judaism. French Bible critic Ernest Renan remarked that “only a hair’s breadth prevented all Arabia from becoming Jewish”.

[6] It is a tenet of Islam that any state that has ever been under Muslim control is forever rightfully Mulsim.