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Explainer: What you need to know about unrest in the Mideast

  • Image: Yemeni anti-regime protesters holding up
    Mohammad Huwais  /  AFP - Getty Images

    The surging unrest in numerous countries in the Mideast and northern Africa is a complex and fast-moving story. To help you make sense of it, msnbc.com has asked these experts to share their insights on the protests and answer readers' questions. To submit a question of your own, scroll down this page.

  • 'Mission creep'?

    Aimee Blodgett  /  Univ. of South Florida

    Question: Several weeks into the NATO mission in Libya, things seem to be reaching a military stalemate. But the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and even the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made it clear that they prefer a future without Moammar Gadhafi in power and Britain, Italy and France have started to send in military advisors. What does that mean for fears of “mission creep” and an increasingly open-ended, costly conflict?

    Answer from Mohsen M. Milani, professor and Government & International Affairs Department chair at University of South Florida: There has clearly been “mission creep,” as the conflict in Libya is likely to be protracted and costly. Despite an existing military and political stalemate, there is simply no backing down of the demand by the Western powers that Gadhafi should relinquish power. Yes, the removal of Gadhafi could take some time. Yes, it could prove to be costly. But allowing him to stay in power is going to be more costly and will be a strategic blunder.

    Part of the problem is the incongruence of what the major Western powers seek to achieve in Libya and what the UNSCR 1973 Resolution authorized them to achieve in that country.

    The United Nations Security Council Resolution specifically called for the creation of a no-fly zone and protection of civilian populations from Gadhafi’s military onslaught. The international community has made good progress to achieve these dual goals. The U.N. Resolution, however, did not call for regime change in Libya.

    At the same time, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and other Western leaders have publicly called for a new and democratic government in Libya. Moreover, regime change in Libya was the major objective of the April 13 Contact Group meeting in Qatar, which included some Islamic countries and was supported by Western powers.

    This contradiction between the goals of the U.N. Resolution and that of the Western powers has created lingering tensions within the Atlantic Alliance. For example, France, the U.K., and Italy have called for a more robust and interventionist policy towards Libya, while Germany and Turkey have called for a less ambitious military intervention and more emphasis on a political resolution to the ongoing crisis in Libya.

    Today, we have both military and political stalemates in Libya. The international community, particularly those countries that have advocated regime change, seem to have underestimated the resolve and determination of Gadhafi to cling to power. The Colonel, unlike former President Mubarak of Egypt, has decided to stay and fight for his survival. Thus far, despite a few defections, Gadhafi’s military has stood united behind him.

    Another factor that has contributed to the current stalemate is the sad status of the opposition to Gadhafi. Politically, the opposition seems disjointed, undisciplined and disorganized. They seem to be united only behind Gadhafi’s removal, but do not seem to have built a consensus on what kind of Libya they want to build. Nor has the international community recognized the legitimacy of the opposition, although France has formally recognized Mr. Abdel-Jalil, former Justice Minister, as the head of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. 

    The military component of the opposition to Gadhafi is also divided, as there have been reports about an intense rivalry between Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes and Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Nor does the military have sufficient hardware to defeat Gadhafi’s much better-equipped and disciplined armed forces. It is not clear how quickly the military advisors to be sent by France, the U.K., and Italy, can turn the tides in favor of the opposition to Gadhafi.

  • Receding media spotlight?

    Aimee Blodgett  /  Univ. of South Florida

    Question: Libya is no longer front page news every day, what happens when the international media begins to turn its attention to other issues – like the upcoming royal wedding – and the spotlight comes off Libya? How will that affect the U.S./NATO mission there?

    Answer from Mohsen M. Milani, professor and Government & International Affairs Department chair at University of South Florida: It will have no impact on the U.S. /NATO mission in Libya. After all, U.S. and NATO strategies and missions are not determined entirely based on what is covered in the mass media. The United States has important national interests in Libya, but other Western countries, particularly France, the U.K., and Italy have vital interests.

    Moreover, if the stalemate in Libya continues, the price of crude oil is unlikely to decline significantly in the coming weeks. In these economically difficult times, the rising gas prices will have everyone’s attention, and, therefore, the international media is unlikely to ignore the conflict in Libya, a country that provides approximately 2 percent of the world’s supply of oil.

  • More defections?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa defected to the U.K. on Wednesday, which the U.S. and U.K. are hailing as a "significant blow" and a sign that Col. Moammar Gadhafi's government is truly crumbling. But do we have any evidence that Koussa is setting off a defection trend? Is there any evidence that his defection is not just a one-off thing and that there are more to come?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: The defection of Moussa Koussa is significant because this is the highest ranking Libyan official that has broken with Gadhafi. Others have preceded him at the ministerial, ambassadorial and military level but none have been as high ranking as Foreign Minister Koussa. Moreover, he brings with him intimate knowledge of the Gadhafi regime's inner workings. This intelligence could be very important for NATO and the rebels in terms of the military campaign against the Libya regime.

    Most of the high level defections have already taken place so this seems to be a "one-off thing," but the coming days will reveal if this defection suggests a larger trend is underway.

  • Libyan rebels routed?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: How significant is that the rebels have pulled back as much as they have? Are they being routed or are they pulling back as a strategic move?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: It is very significant as it suggests that the initial wave of U.S./NATO airstrikes have not seriously damaged Gadhafi’s army nor has it weakened its morale. The rebels are clearly being routed.

    All of this is highly significant as it suggests the rebels are a very weak fighting force. They can lose territory as fast as they have gained it. The recent setbacks for the rebels raise serious questions if they can ever defeat Gadhafi on the ground, via a military campaign. This was the great hope of the Obama administration and its allies, but it is now clear that the rebels lack the organization, training and arms to stand up to Gadhafi’s army which is better equipped, trained and disciplined. We are headed for a protracted war it seems unless there is an internal coup within Gadhafi’s inner circle.

  • What if the rebels fail?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: If the rebels are routed and beaten back significantly by Gadhafi's forces, what recourse does the U.S./NATO have? What if the rebels are beaten by Gadhafi's much more organized forces? Then what can the international coalition do?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: If the rebels continue to lose ground the only recourse available for the U.S./NATO and the international community is to step up the military campaign and war effort against Gadhafi. 

    This effectively translates into mission creep but there are no other options available. More airstrikes will be required – with the risk of civilian casualties – and more importantly the rebels will have to be trained and armed. This is both costly and time consuming. Time is not on the side of the international community, it is on Gadhafi’s side.

  • Military intervention

    Image: Stephen Zunes
    stephenzunes.org

    Question: President Barack Obama said on Monday that NATO was considering military options in response to the situation in Libya. Do you consider such an allied intervention likely and, if so, what form do you think it would take?

    Answer from Stephen Zunes, professor  of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco: Despite the understandable desire to end the killings and rid Libya of their dictator, my sense is that the Obama administration recognizes that there are few military options.  Military intervention of almost any kind – particularly troops on the ground – would play into Gadhafi’s hands as he would depict himself as defending the nation against foreign intervention, playing to the Libyan people’s strong sense of nationalism and the country’s history of being subjected to foreign conquests.  A “no-fly” zone as the U.S. imposed in Iraq in the 1990s would be problematic because, unlike in the Iraqi case, Libya still has a sophisticated network of anti-aircraft batteries – some of which are in heavily-populated areas – that would have to be destroyed first through air strikes, thereby putting the United States and Libya at war, also allowing Gadhafi to play the nationalist card.

  • Protracted war

    Aimee Blodgett  /  Univ. of South Florida

    Question: The conflict in Libya appears to be on its way to becoming a protracted war? Does an extended contest for control favor one side or the other?

    Answer from Mohsen M. Milani, professor and Government & International Affairs Department chair at University of South Florida: Although the media is reluctant to call it as such, what we are witnessing in Libya is a mini-civil war, with the potential to become a full-blown civil war.  On one hand, Moammar Gadhafi’s opponents have captured a few cities, including Benghazi  (the second most populous city in Libya) and a few strategic and oil-rich regions.  They have declared their intention to set up a transitional government as well.  For all practical purposes, the opposition in Libya is seeking to overthrow the established government and create a new political order. Therefore, we now have two competing forces claiming “sovereignty” in one country – one of the classical characteristics of civil war.

    Libya’s mercurial dictator, on the other hand, is determined to use every instrument of repression at his disposal to destroy his opponents and re-establish his rule. Gadhafi is no Mubarak, and he will not leave the scene peacefully.   At this moment in time, he enjoys clear advantages over his opponents. His armed forces are larger, better-trained and better-equipped.  He has an air force that provides protection for his ground troops and is willing to inflict casualties on the opposition. He has a well-entrenched security force that has ruled the country for more than four decades and has no compunction to use Draconian methods to silence opponents.  Those fighting against Gadhafi are poorly equipped and insufficiently disciplined and organized. However, they seem to be highly motivated and are supported by all freedom-loving people in the Arab world and beyond. 

    Without direct  political and economic support and without indirect military assistance by the West to the opposition,  Gaddafi could very well crush the uprising.  Sending foreign troops to assist  the uprising, however, is fraught with dangers, as Gadhafi would depict such an intervention as another example of a Western design to impose its hegemony in the Arab world. With Western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, his message could resonate among Muslims. It might be easy to send troops to Libya, but it would be infinitely more difficult to get them out.  

    The recent uprisings are creating a shift in the Arab consciousness, and slowly a new narrative of tolerance, nonviolence, and freedom is emerging, negating Osama bin Laden’s ideology of hatred, cruelty, violence and extremism.  A direct military intervention by the West in Libya could weaken and undermine this new and promising narrative.

  • What if Gadhafi topples?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: If Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is toppled in Libya, what kind of government would be likely to replace it? Are there any respected opposition leaders, either in Libya or abroad, who could step into the power vacuum at least temporarily?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: What would a post-Gadhafi Libya look like? This is the great unknown. After 40 years of dictatorial rule, all internal opposition has been ruthlessly suppressed and decimated. Outside of Libya, the various opposition groups are divided and deeply suspicious of each other. Events in Tunisia and Egypt might be instructive here in terms of the role of a military figure, who is perceived as independent from the regime and who might be able to seize control via inside military coup d’état that separates itself from the Gadhafi regime and its sordid legacy.   

  • What's being ignored? Iran ...

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: What else is happening in the Mideast and North Africa that hasn’t received much attention in the U.S. media?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: Within Iran, the struggle for democracy continues. The Green Movement has been revitalized and re-energized due to events in North Africa. Notwithstanding strong state repression, reflected in the fact that since the start of 2011 there have been on average two executions per day in Iran, protests and resistance continue. Last week, the Iranian regime arrested the two key leaders of the Green Movement and their wives. They are currently being held at an undisclosed location. What is interesting about this development is the fact that the regime’s official position is that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have not been arrested and they are living unmolested in their homes -- a claim that has been repudiated by the children of these political leaders who do know the whereabouts of their parents. Why the fear to officially announce the arrest of the leadership of Iran’s opposition movement? What is the Iranian regime scared of? Answer: the wrath of the people.

  • ... and Iraq

    Image: Stephen Zunes
    stephenzunes.org

    Question: What else is happening in the Mideast and North Africa that hasn’t received much attention in the U.S. media?

    Answer from Stephen Zunes, professor  of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco: Despite attempts to depict the U.S.-backed Iraqi regime as “democratic,” the increasingly authoritarian Maliki government is being challenged by nonviolent pro-democracy protests as well.    Maliki has sidelined the elected parliament, maintains torture chambers and prisons with thousands of political prisoners, and has overseen death squads against suspected political opponents.  His forces have gunned down scores of pro-democracy protesters and he has ordered the arrest of hundreds of intellectuals, journalists, and others for daring to support peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.  It raises serious questions about the wisdom of continuing to deploy tens of thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to prop up this regime.

  • What about Tunisia?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: In Tunisia, a series of resignations of members of new President Beji Caid Essabi’s Cabinet has raised questions about the country’s post-revolution direction. How do you assess what’s occurring there?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: My assessment is that the population wants rapid change and interim leaders who reflect their values while the old guard is resisting and wants change to occur at a slower pace.  I suspect this dynamic will continue until those who carried out the revolution are satisfied with both the speed and the direction of political reform.

  • What's happening in Yemen?

    United States Institue Of Peace

    Question: The government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been unable to strike a deal with opposition leaders, who continue to demand his resignation. Do you see Saleh hanging on much longer?

    Answer from Daniel Brumberg, associate professor of government at Georgetown University and a special adviser for the United States Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative: I think Saleh will hang on hard, perhaps to the point of fragmenting the Yemeni state even further. In the case of Yemen, the opposition is more united than similar opposition coalitions in the Arab world. Yemen's opposition front brings together leaders of the Islamist Islah party and leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party, and that presents Yemen's ruling party with a pretty formidable opponent. Yemen's rulers must also deal with rebellions in the South, and from the Huthi Shiites in the nortrhwest. Yemen has experienced civil war twice, and repeated rebellions, and given the weakness of the state and the prevelance of weapons, together with the escalating demands of the opposition (which now insists on Saleh's resignation, which is  unlikely), it is hard to be optimistic. That said, precisely because the country has experienced civil  conflict before, it is still possible that everyone will step back from the brink.

  • What about Saudi Arabia?

    Aimee Blodgett  /  Univ. of South Florida

    Question: The Saudi king’s contribution to the development fund is being characterized as an attempt to fend off unrest in that oil-rich nation. Do you agree and, if so, how do you rate its chances of success?

    Answer from Mohsen M. Milani, professor and Government & International Affairs Dept. Chair at University of South Florida:

    These days, the governing elites in Saudi Arabia must be going through tough times. They face three interconnected challenges.

    First, the new wave of uprisings that started in Tunisia, then moving to Egypt, Bahrain and now to Libya have eliminated two of the Kingdom's closest regional allies, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarack of Egypt.  Even more ominous for the Kingdom has been the Shi'ia majority's massive uprising in neighboring Bahrain against a Saudi-backed Sunni Al Khalifia monarchy. The awakening and possible empowerment of Bahraini Shi'ias could energize Saudi Arabia's own restless Shi'ia population in the Kingdom's oil rich provinces, which are estimated to constitute about 10 percent of the population.

    Second, while the Arab world has been shaken to its core by a new wave of pro-democracy populism, the octogenarian King Abdullah is just now returning home after spending three months abroad for medical treatment. His advanced age and poor health pose a serious problem for the Kingdom's succession of power, as most of those immediately in line to succeed Abdullah are septuagenarian who suffer from health problems.

    Third, in order to pre-empt any possible uprising or rebellion of the type witnessed in Cairo and elsewhere, the Kingdom is trying to ride the crest of the political wave by announcing a series of new financial benefits specifically designed to appease the youth and the unemployed. These remedies might work for a while, but they do not address the fundamental problem facing the Kingdom. Although Saudi Arabia today appears rather stable, in the midterm and longterm, the absolute monarchy in that country will need to open up, increase transparency, democratize the political process, and reform the system, and or it is likely to face eventual instability.   

  • An outgrowth of Bush's democracy push?

    Image: Stephen Zunes
    stephenzunes.org

    Question: Is the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which President George W. Bush promised would create a “beacon of democracy”  in the Mideast, in any way connected to the wave of revolt sweeping the Arab world?

    Answer from Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco: Not at all. What we have seen in the Middle East in recent weeks demonstrates there are far less costly ways of bringing down dictators. 

    Most pro-democracy activists I’ve talked with in the region have argued that the U.S. invasion of Iraq actually set back the pro-democracy movement by enabling autocrats to depict the violence and sectarianism of post-Saddam Iraq as the consequence of ousting a stable, if repressive, regime. Since “democracy” in Iraq was imposed by  foreign intervention, these dictators were also better able to label pro-democracy activists as foreign agents. 

    Despite his pro-democracy rhetoric, the Bush administration provided more aid to more Middle Eastern dictatorships than any previous administration. In addition, the Bush administration initially opposed free elections in Iraq, instead opting for indefinite rule by U.S. appointees, giving into demands for direct elections only after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis peacefully demonstrated demanding it.

  • Why is unrest regional?

    Image: Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor
    University of Denver

    Question: So far the domino-effect from the Tunisian uprising appears to have largely been confined to the Mideast and North Africa. Why is that?

    Answer from Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies: Broadly speaking the Mideast and North Africa are afflicted by similar (but not identical) social conditions that give rise to popular discontent. First, there is massive economic frustration due to the global economic criss that has also effected this region in dire ways (producing rising unemployment and poverty). Secondly, authoritarian regimes have been in power for decades, replete with corruption, repression and the absence of political freedom. Mostly importantly, a new generation has come of age that is highly educated, globalized and Internet savvy. Combine these three elements together and you get a combustible mix. Finally, this region shares a common political history and set of grievances rooted in a strong disdain for Western policy during the past 200 years.

  • U.S. foreign policy

    Image: Lawrence Pintak
    Robert Hubner  /  Courtesy of Lawrence Pintak

    Question: To what degree is U.S. foreign policy contributing to or responsible for the unrest sweeping the region?

    Answer from Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, longtime Mideast correspondent and author of "The New Arab Journalist": In the long term, U.S. support for the region’s rulers has interfered with the ability of these nations to evolve politically. That has led to a view that American policy is hypocritical, espousing the values of democracy and human rights yet supporting those who stand for anything but that. Even this week, we see many Arabs reacting negatively to the fact that Hillary Clinton has essentially been calling on Iranians to rise up against the regime while taking a much more muted approach to Bahrain, where the U.S. has a major naval base and thus a strategic interest in the status quo.

  • Why should I care?

    Image: Lawrence Pintak
    Robert Hubner  /  Courtesy of Lawrence Pintak

    Question:  Why should Americans care what happens in Egypt?

    Answer from Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, longtime Mideast correspondent and author of "The New Arab Journalist":  Egypt is a critical ally. It has played a very important mediating role in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, in the confrontation with Iran and, politically, in the Iraq war. And there can be no peace between the Arabs and Israelis without Egypt. If Egypt were to turn on the U.S., it would have a major ripple effect on U.S. Middle East relations.

  • Muslim Brotherhood

    Image: Ellis Goldberg
    Courtesy of Ellis Goldberg
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Question:  How much influence does the Muslim Brotherhood wield in Egypt and how radical are their beliefs?

    Answer from Ellis Goldberg, political science professor, University of Washington, currently in Cairo working on a book: There are many, many Egyptians who do not want a government headed > by the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the general consensus is that they represent maybe 20 to 30 percent of the populace. … There are certainly people who are much more extreme and dangerous. … The problem for a lot of analysts is that if Mubarak insists on taking the system down with him, so there’s no structure for transition, you could end up with the Muslim Brotherhood as the only organization capable of providing any structure. ... During the Iranian revolution, the shah was unwilling to recognize the need for a transition until it was too late. If that happens here, everything will fall apart and someone will pick the pieces. Although here it is more likely to be the army.

    Read more:   Who is the Muslim Brotherhood?

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