What’s going on in Libya?

It is not easy to know what is going on in Libya, because media access is limited.

You could have won some cash off me had we wagered even a week ago, for I figured Qaddafi (or however you spell his name) had such a tight grip that mass protests would not break out. But break out they have, and the state response has been furious. But it seems the protesters really have lost their fear…

The Guardian is now reporting that, for apparently the first time, protests have spread to Tripoli:

In dramatic and fast-moving developments demonstrators were reported massing in Tripoli’s Green Square and preparing to march on Gaddafi’s compound.

And Al Jazeera is reporting:

Meanwhile the head of the Al-Zuwayya tribe in eastern Libya has threatened to cut off oil exports unless authorities stop what he called the “oppression of protesters”, the Warfala tribe, one of Libya’s biggest, has reportedly joined the anti-Gaddafi protests.


Anti-government protesters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi have reportedly seized army vehicles and weapons … A local witness said that a section of the troops had joined the protesters on Sunday as chaos swept the streets of the city, worst hit by the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year old rule.

The Al Jazeera article also reports that about 50 Muslim leaders in Libya have called on security forces to stop firing on civilians.

Even for a dictator as ruthless and oblivious to international condemnation as Qaddafi these have to be ominous signs.

    * Lately one or two have fully paid their dues…

Mubarak gone, military in power

Just announced by Omar Suleiman in a brief statement (via Al Jazeera).

My first guess is this was a coup that began with the military council’s oblique “Communique One” yesterday. But who knows? Maybe we’ll know one day.

In the meantime, I leave you with some of the key ideas from the political science literature on revolutions:

    * Let fury have the hour, anger can be power…

    * Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

Autocrats in trouble–unleashing the goons

Time has a list of the Top 10 Autocrats in Trouble:

    * Hosni Mubarak
    * Ali Abdullah Saleh
    * Kim Jong Il
    * Alexander Lukashenko
    * Omar Hassan al-Bashir
    * Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    * Robert Mugabe
    * Emomali Rahmon
    * House of Saud
    * Abdelaziz Bouteflika

The first one on that list has done what most autocrats in the deepest of trouble do: unleash the goons. Some of them are charging at the protesters on horses or camels. Very troubling event today. Perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken so long for some sort of street violence to commence. Mubarak was never likely to go easily.

Watching the Al Jazeera live stream, I have to say I can’t recall ever seeing images of running street battles on this scale.

The chaos, it seems from here, can only increase the odds of a worse form of authoritarianism replacing Mubarak, whose days are likely numbered regardless of how ruthless his goons are.

Mubarak: How long?

I’m watching the Al Jazeera live feed from Egypt (via Livestation). Amazing stuff.

The ruling party HQ in Cairo has been burnt to the ground by protesters. The army is on the street with armored vehicles, and Al Jazeera is reporting that some of the personnel are flying flags and waving to protesters. Reports of some live fire, apparently by police.

The international airports have been closed.

Mubarak has yet to speak to the public, but is supposed to do so today. Is he going to order a crackdown, and if so will the army do it? Is he going to announce his departure? Something in between (and surely inadequate), like a plan not to stand in the presidential elections scheduled for September?

The long authoritarian rule in Egypt may be coming to end, at least in its present form.

Update: So, finally, Mubarak went on live TV, late at night, and announced the dismissal of the cabinet, and claimed credit for all he had done to give Egyptians the freedom they were now expressing. The Muslim Brotherhood responded by calling on the army to take over.

Tunisia leader ousted. No, again.

That’s three presidents in about 48 hours.

This second change, ousting the PM who had taken over the presidential role, actually reverts to constitutional procedure, as Al Jazeera notes:

The council declared [former president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s departure was permanent and [speaker of parliament Fouad] Mebazaa was sworn in on Saturday under Article 57 which stipulates that when the post of the president falls vacant due to his demise, resignation or total incapacitation … the speaker of the parliament … shall immediately undertake the presidential duties on temporary basis for not less than 45 days; and not more than 60 days.

The piece of legislation states that it is not permissible during the transitional presidential period to amend the constitution or impeach the government. And during this period, a new president shall be elected for the term of five years. The newly elected president may dissolve the parliament, and call for premature parliamentary election (in accordance with the provisions of Paragraph Second of Chapter 63).

In a case like this, a “transition” following the rules of the established constitution does not necessarily augur for real change.

The definition of a military junta

I have noted many times that what happened in Honduras was a military coup, notwithstanding that there is no military junta governing the country in the aftermath. At PoliBlog, a commenter asks what is the political science definition of a military junta, and why doesn’t the current Honduran situation meet a dictionary definition of “the rule of a military or political group after taking power by force.”

Good question. My response is that my very specific understanding of a junta is that it is a governing council of active-duty military officers, who assume the role of the executive and usually also the legislative branch.

Sometimes there is a civilian-military junta, as after the Salvadoran coup of 1979. But that means still that there is an executive council that consists at least in part of military officers.

So, while I have argued all along that this event in Honduras was a military coup, I do not think the current de-facto governing situation qualifies as a military junta. There is a single executive official who is actually the constitutional civilian successor to the president–what makes it illegal is that the military, rather than the constitutional process–overthrew, by force, the rightful president. And, of course, the legislature still functions, at least formally.

So Honduras has had a military coup, but does not have a military junta. At least for now.

Or is my definition too narrow?

And I suppose another relevant question is how do you pronounce “junta” in English?


For those interested in some historical reflections on the Honduran military coup, I recommend Steven’s post from yesterday. He refers to various reminders of why “folks who study Latin American politics (such as myself, Greg Weeks, Matthew Shugart and others) feel like we’ve seen, to one degree or another, the Honduran coup before and why it is concerning.”

Text of aborted Honduran plebiscite

The planned plebiscite in Honduras, which was the precipitating event for the military coup that overthrew the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, was as follows:

¿Está de acuerdo que en las elecciones generales de 2009 se instale una cuarta urna en la cual el pueblo decida la convocatoria a una asamblea nacional constituyente? = Sí…….ó………..No.

I am going to pick up now on Steven Taylor’s translation and comments:


Do you agree with the installation of a fourth ballot box during the 2009 general elections so that the people can decide on the calling of a national constituent assembly? Yes or no.

In other words: do you want there to be a ballot and a ballot box (Latin American elections often have one ballot per office and one ballot box per ballot) for the purpose of a referendum in November (alongside the presidential and congressional elections) to decide whether or not to call a constituent assembly to reform the constitution.

[…] This is important for a variety of reasons.

1. This language was not about re-election.

2. Even if the plebiscite was allowed to go forward, the answer was “yes,” and the results were allowed to stand, Zelaya would not have been in a position to be re-elected in November.

Steven has more on the theme, including a photo of the ballot,* at PoliBlog.

Perhaps Zelaya was going to find a way to extend his term, unconstitutionally, but I never understood how. Unless he had totally suspended the constitution, which it is doubtful he expected to be able to do, he was not going to get the right to run for immediate reelection in November, when his successor was due to be elected. The constitution has language that makes it impossible to amend for reelection, which would explain the need for a constituent assembly. (A constituent assembly could declare itself the “sovereign voice of the people” and therefore not bound by restrictions in the existing constitution.) However, if the assembly could not be elected, convened, and complete its work before the November election, it would be too late for Zelaya to extend his term.

If the planned vote this past Sunday had been one to call a constituent assembly for this summer, there might have been more urgency to the situation. I would still not see even the slightest justification for the coup, but the urgency to deal with an unconstitutional act by the president would have been, well, urgent. But there was plenty of time for constitutional processes to play out.

And, yes, this was a military coup. It does not matter that there is no military junta, or that the arrest of the president was allegedly approved by other state institutions (Supreme Court and congress). I heard a news item today that the US government has not officially branded the act a military coup, because to do so would force the cutoff of aid. If that is true, shame on the Obama administration. If it is actually governed by a democratic administration, the US must cut off military aid and diplomatic relations until the coup is reversed and the proper constitutional order is restored in Honduras. This must not be allowed to stand, and mere words of condemnation are not enough. The military needs to feel some economic pain for its actions.

Update: See Two Weeks Notice on the question of aid and military coups. Which is, of course, what this coup was, except in the Obama administration’s hairsplitting terminology. How very Clintonian of the US government.

* I had seen the ballot on TV Once (Mexico) last night, but even freezing the frame on my brand new, and unbelievably clear, plasma TV, I could not quite read the entire thing. So I thank Steven for posting it–and also thank Miguel Madeira (who pointed Steven to the source).

Coup in Honduras

So, the constitutional crisis in Honduras has been “resolved” (for the moment at least) in the old-fashioned way: A military coup has ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Of course, ABC refers to him, in the very first sentence, as a “leftist” president, notwithstanding that he is from one of the oldest and most elitist parties in Latin America, the Liberal Party, which along with the National Party, makes up one of the last of the old traditional two-party systems. (In fact, with Paraguay and Colombia having seen the emergence of numerous newer parties in recent years, and Uruguay’s third force having elected its first president, I guess Honduras now has the last stodgy old two-party system in Latin America.)

Iran’s security forces

An anonymous guest post at The Reaction by someone described as “a Truman National Security Project fellow [who] travels regularly to Iran” sketches the complex of security forces and wonders if they can remain loyal to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

The conclusion, in part: “It is difficult to predict how these mercenaries will operate when their “enemies” are unarmed citizens supported by respectable national leaders.”

The key, it seems to me, really is whether the more pragmatic elements within the leadership feel sufficiently threatened by the hardliners to test the loyalty of these forces to the latter.

Are Experts preparing to test institutionalization?

There is a report this morning from Al Arabiya that Iran’s Assembly of Experts could be preparing to assert its institutional role of holding the Supreme Leader to accounts for the first time (seen at PoliBlog):

Iran’s religious clerics in Qom and members of the Assembly of Experts, headed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, are mulling the formation of an alternative collective leadership to replace that of the supreme leader, sources in Qom told Al Arabiya on condition of anonymity.

I might note that by citing Steven’s PoliBlog here, I am engaging in a little blogger reciprocity: Earlier today Steven was kind enough to post an excerpt and extensive comment on my December, 2006, discussion of the last Assembly of Experts election in the context of considerations of how “institutionalized” Iran’s regime is. (I also had a follow-up on the theme of institutionalization a few days later.)

So they are one now?

As I have noted at various times over the last two and a half years of occasional analysis of Iranian elections and other developments, it has been clear that the Supreme Leader and the incumbent President are not exactly allies. There have even been signs that each might be trying to use the various elected and non-elected institutions established in the wake of the Islamic revolution to get rid of, or clip the powers of, the other.

However, it seems even more clear that in recent days, in reaction (and that is certainly the correct word here) to the protests against the suspicious ‘reelection’ of the president that the Supreme Leader has thrown his fate in with that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yesterday, the Supreme Leader’s attempt to appear above the fray, as a mediator among the clerics’ factions, evidently collapsed, when opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declined to attend what was hailed as a reconciliation meeting (seen at Juan Cole, but his link to the story no longer works).

The Iranian regime, with its odd combination of a narrow self-appointed ruling clique of clerics and relatively open (albeit restricted) elections, could regulate the significant divisions within the elite via elections so long as the electorate accepted the limited choices offered and the official results. Obviously, that equilibrium (if it can said ever to have been one) has now broken. As I noted a few days ago, it is rare for an authoritarian regime to tolerate the defeat of an incumbent president in elections and yet remain authoritarian. It seems as though the Supreme Leader himself understands that basic political-science fact, and probably has all along.

Now, mostly likely, either the ‘supreme leader’ and ‘president’ (inverted commas now because clearly their legitimacy is gone) either go out together (in which case Iran has a chance to become a democracy) or they stay (in which case the Islamic Republic survives, but in a much narrower and more openly authoritarian form). I have to agree with my colleague in Sociology, Gershon Shafir, that the latter is more likely now. However, writing at the same site, Augustus Norton is not so sure that the forces of repression can maintain the upper hand, if protests continue, and given the continued open divisions within the broader clergy.

How this might end is still uncertain, and may remain so for a time. But a solution within the framework of the Islamic Republic as we have known it looks increasingly out of reach.

Technology of resistance

Juan Cole:

The telegraph was important to the 1890-92 revolt against a tobacco monopoly granted by Nasir al-Din Shah to a British freebooter, which harmed Iranian merchants and farmers. The 1979 revolution was fueled by cassette tapes of the sermons and speeches of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. And now we have twitter.

I am not on Twitter myself (and will admit that I don’t quite “get” it), but for those who are and want to help, Jack (in the comments) points us to some evidently useful advice.

Elections in authoritarian states

A question for the readers: Has there ever been an authoritarian system in which the president lost a reelection bid, and in which the system remained authoritarian?

Obviously, I am thinking here of Iran, which has an unusual mix of authoritarianism and competitive elections–restricted, but competitive.

The context is that there have been, for the last few years, ample signs that much of the clerical establishment that actually rules Iran would like to clip the wings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and perhaps be rid of him. But if his intra-regime opponents could not somehow get him to step aside (and I have no idea if there was ever any such organized effort), it would be hard to imagine most of the clerics not rallying behind the incumbent.

For an authoritarian system to allow an election defeat of its incumbent head of government presumably would simply be too risky.

Usually, authoritarian systems that have even minimally competitive elections never have significant intra-regime challengers in those elections (unless the regime is teetering, that is), either because the head of the government is a single-term position (as in the formerly authoritarian Mexican system) or the ruling coalition is sufficiently coordinated around a leader who serves multiple terms.

I have speculated previously about whether the Iranian regime was becoming more “institutionalized” over time, or not, and what it might mean if it were.* However, at this time, I still have more questions than answers…

* In addition to the linked item, there were two follow-ups, themselves linked at the bottom of the first one.