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NightWatch 20110224

NightWatch

For the Night of 24 February 2011

Japan-Russia: Update. Japan will no longer use the term "illegal occupation" in reference to the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories in an effort to avoid tension with Russia. Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said the new term will be "territories under sovereignty that has no legal grounds," adding that Japan's stance on the islands remains unchanged.

Comment: The new term is only slightly less insulting, but it acknowledges de facto sovereignty without conceding de jure sovereignty. That is a basis for talks and a compromise that could benefit the residents of the Kurils.

North Korea: The South Korean daily, Chosun Ilbo, has reported twice this week about public protests over living conditions. On the night of 14 February, two days before leader Kim Chong-il's birthday, demonstrators in three separate towns in North Pyongan Province are reported to have shouted, "Give us fire and rice." North Pyongan Province is in northwest North Korea and is the gateway province to China.

In a separate incident, the paper reported that hundreds of North Koreans clashed with security forces in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, on 18 February. Sinuiju is an industrial town and the pipeline, rail and road border crossing point to China.

Comment: North Koreans are educated, hard working and long suffering under one of the world's most benighted leadership families. Conditions have to border on intolerable for North Koreans to protest in public.

Several points are worth noting. Food and other shortages have sparked protests in the past, as in the 1990s when shortages were so severe that people resorted to eating edible tree bark, with recipes provided in pamphlets issued by the government. The demand for "fire" means people lack heat, i.e., a shortage of charcoal, in winter. Nevertheless, protests are not about regime change, but rather about the regime keeping its promises.

Gatherings of any kind require the permission and cooperation of local party and public safety officials. Thus conditions must be quite sserious because the punishment for unauthorized public assembly and speech is incarceration at hard labor or execution.

Finally, food protests always begin in the cities farthest from Pyongyang, on the periphery. Sinuiju is on the border with China. If conditions are severe, protests will proceed along the main railroad line from Sinuiju to Pyongyang, using the railroads to convey messages down the line.

An outbreak of protests in the city of Chongju, the next major town down the rail line from Sinuiju, would signify near starvation conditions. During the famine of the mid-1990s, authorities committed tank units from an army corps based nearby to suppress food riots in Chongju. If there are food protests in February, public grain stocks are running out or the distribution system has failed, or both.

China-North Korea: China is blocking the release of a U.N. expert panel report disclosing a new uranium enrichment plant in North Korea. The Chinese contend the report's expert, American scientist Siegfried Hecker, had no official standing to make observations the UN should respect. China also argues the plant's existence has not confirmed independently and the report's findings and recommendations went beyond the facts.

Comment: The Chinese behavior is a warning action that signifies Chinese leaders are not prepared to tolerate more sanctions against North Korea or a sanctions fight in the UN, both of which might follow were the UN to publish the report.

China: Authorities have filed charges of "inciting subversion of state power" against at least three Internet users who reposted calls for protests, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said. Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping urged a greater outreach by the Communist Party to handle issues related to education, employment, health care and housing.

Comment: Chinese authorities are aggressively trying to prevent the youth from organizing using social media. So far they are succeeding.

Bahrain: Protests at Manama's Pearl Square continued on 24 February, but government tactics have changed.

The protestors

Hundreds of protesters marched from Pearl Square toward the historic neighborhood of Bab al-Bahrain in Manama, AFP reported Feb. 24. Hani al-Kaffas, a demonstration organizer, said that while Pearl Square is the center of the rallies, they intend to spread protests across Bahrain. Protesters chanted statements calling for the end of the Al Khalifa dynasty. No police presence was reported near the march.

The General Federation for Bahrain Trade Unions, which represents over 60 trade unions across Bahrain, joined the anti-government opposition committee. Secretary-General Sayed Salman said the unions will strike if the Bahraini police or army tries again to suppress the protests. Salman said the unions support the protesters' call for more rights and freedom. The trade union federation will become the eighth member of the opposition committee, joining Shiite opposition bloc Al Wefaq and other secular groups. Talks will center on how to unify protesters' demands.

An umbrella group of seven main Bahraini opposition groups, including the Shiite Al Wefaq and secular parties, formulated the members' key demands to the government. They include the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, dissolution of the current government, release of all political prisoners, an independent investigation into the deaths of seven protestors during the demonstrations and the formation of a new "national salvation" government.

The government

The government is seeking a national dialogue with the opposition where nothing is off the table, including possible changes to the cabinet, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said, on 24 February. Al-Khalifa said the events in Bahrain will transform the country and are a new beginning for the reforms started 10 years ago. "All walks of people" will be included in the talks, including hard-line Bahraini opposition leader Hassan Mushaimei who is seeking to return to the country after being pardoned. The dialogue between the government and opposition is expected to start within days, al-Khalifa said.

Comment: Two changes occurred in the past 48 hours, in the uprising and in the government's response. The formulation of demands indicates a more mature set of leaders has taken leadership of or is exploiting the uprising as an opportunity to advance their political programs. The uprising is getting leadership, of a sort.

The seven-member umbrella opposition group is part of the existing political system and has little to do with the youth who started the protests. They are taking advantage of the instability by posing as the spokesmen for the uprising and thus, as the parties with whom the government must negotiate. The government needs to negotiate with someone because it has few other options for a peaceful settlement.  More concessions to the mob serve to increase its demands.

The government has adopted new tactics that avoid confrontation by treating the uprising with respect and making concessions thoughtfully and with deliberation. This is a conflict avoidance set of tactics that counts on boredom, essentially, to defuse tension. Without incitement from government action, the crowds' enthusiasm should dissipate over time. So the government will hold a dialogue with the intentions of promising, but slow-rolling concessions that work against the monarchy as presently constituted.

That tactic will not work with the hard core opposition umbrella group which has the best opportunity ever to make political gains. Their interest is in gaining concessions quickly because once the crowds stop gathering, the opposition loses its leverage against the government.

Leaders on both sides understand the conditions and the stakes, setting the stage for a serious and important political struggle that will influence political action by Shiites in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The youth that started the uprising are pawns, as in Egypt.

A complicating factor is the presence of Pakistanis and other foreigners in the King's security forces. His resources and options for using the police power of the state against the uprising are limited and are prone to backfire.

Saudi Arabia: A group of Saudi youths called for a peaceful demonstration in Jeddah in solidarity with anti-government protesters in Libya, DPA reported. A group calling itself Jeddah Youth for Change distributed a printed statement around Riyadh asking people to demonstrate near the al-Beia Roundabout in Jeddah on 25 February. The announcement said the group will not give up its right to demonstrate peacefully and express its solidarity with the Libyan people.

Comment: The youth might claim they are only supporting the uprising in Libya, but Saudi authorities are likely to interpret this as a challenge to authority that could escalate into public protests.

Yemen: President Saleh ordered the formation of a government committee to conduct a dialogue with protesters. Foreign Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar will head the committee, which aims to have a constructive dialogue with protesters and to listen to their demands. As reported yesterday, Saleh used security forces to separate pro- and anti-government demonstrators, as the protector of civil rights.

Comment: President Saleh has adopted the same conflict avoidance tactics with which the Bahrain government is experimenting. The situations are not remotely similar, but the goal in both situations is to lower the political temperature by not provoking the uprising, showing respect and holding talks. In this, Bahrain and Yemen are both engaging in power sharing.

STRATFOR reported that the Egyptian Supreme Command of the Armed Forces leader Field Marshal Tantawi and Saudi King Abdallah may be the sources for the delaying and conflict avoidance tactics. What is known is that Tantawi sent letters about security matters to Saleh on the 22d and the King of Qatar on the 23rd. The King of Bahrain met King Abdallah yesterday in Riyadh. Collusion and coordination would explain the near simultaneous adoption of similar government tactics in Bahrain and Yemen.

Power sharing

Analysts will recall that power sharing has several important characteristics. Its onset signifies a government concession that power has drained to the opposition so that the opposition is invested with quasi-legal stature and recognition in order to restore civil order.

Power sharing is always temporary, even though it might last a long time in some cases. The parties always know it is not a permanent arrangement and that one or the other will attempt a breakout when it judges its strength is sufficient and an opportunity arises.

Power sharing is almost always a time of relative calm. It is the eye of the political storm, wherein the parties can take stock, regroup and build strength for a breakout. The government will try to take back the power it has conceded temporarily, and the opposition will try to take more, encouraged by its success in forcing dialogue.

In both Bahrain and Yemen, this tactic is a gamble. The governments already have tried coercion and it failed. Neither government nor its negotiating partners can control the uprisings, whose gatherings are nightly entertainment.

It is a gamble for the old time opposition leaders because they really do not represent the uprising and cannot deliver on promises to disperse the crowds and stop the nightly entertainment. But the government has no one else with whom to talk.

If the government can keep the dialogue going while slow-rolling its concessions, time and boredom will work in favor of stability, undercutting any need to maintain the dialogue and ensuring a successful breakout from power sharing with limited violence.

If the opposition can keeping whipping up the crowds, the government has no recourse but to continue the power sharing dialogue. Then, its next tactic will be to try to co-opt the opposition into the existing system and again bore the crowds into dispersing.

There is no revolution at work in any of this yet. 25 February will be a day of large protests across the region, regardless of the new tactics.

Syria-Iran: Two Iranian navy ships arrived at Syria's port of Lattakia on 24 February. An Iranian admiral gave a press conference lauding the first transit of the Suez Canal since the foundation of the Islamic republic.

Egypt: The 10-member committee tasked with amending Egypt's Constitution held its final meeting and will hold talks with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on 26 February, according to a committee member. After discussing its amendments with the SCAF, they will be announced to the public, according to the only committee member from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sobhi Saleh.

Egypt Aluminum announced plans to increase workers' incentives by 15 percent, in addition to increasing the workers' meal allowance, beginning in March, according to company Chairman Sayed Abdul Wahab. Wahab said the moves are tied to increased productivity in recent months. There will also be wage increases in April and July, he said, adding that there is no link between the pay increases and recent protests in Egypt.

Comment: This company and probably others are trying to buy off workers to prevent another round of protests.

Libya: Security. Al Arabiya reported anti-government protestors have taken control of Zuara and al Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. Fighting continued today in one of them, al Zawiyah, where medical sources reported seven people killed and 50 injured after an attack by a military unit loyal to the government. Yesterday, 23 February, a Qadhafi aide visited a mosque in Zawiyah and warned the protestors to leave or they would see a massacre.

Officers of the Khamis battalion killed 135 soldiers for refusing to fire on protesters, opposition forces in Libya said, Al Arabiya reported. Tanks, believed to belong to the Khamis battalion, were deployed between Tripoli and Tajoura to the east, to prevent the arrival of protesters.

Several news outlets quoted hospital officials that the death toll is now 2,000. It could easily be much higher.

Politics.

In a speech broadcast to the people of Al-Zawiyah, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi said, "They told me over the phone about this and that and I got upset, extremely upset, and asked for the immediate halt to the use of force," Libyan TV reported. In the same speech, Qadhafi blamed the uprising on Osama bin Laden and al Qaida who drugged teenage boys into revolting.

His son Saif was on television declaring normality in Tripoli, banks open, normal traffic and schools open. Outside, different film footage, supported by independent eyewitness accounts, showed in the street multiple bodies face down with their hands cuffed behind their back.

Cousin and adviser to Qadhafi, Ahmed Qadhaf al-Dam, has defected to Egypt to protest the Libyan government's crackdown on protesters, according to a statement issued by Qadhaf al-Dam from Cairo. Qadhaf al-Dam was the commander of Tobruk military region and former commander of Cyrenaica region. Until 24 February he was Libya's special representative to Egypt. He departed for Egypt several days ago but delayed his announcement.

Comment: Qadhafi appears to be holding Tripoli, but little else. The regime's loss of al Zawiyah means Tripoli is effectively isolated by land. The window for regrouping and recovering has closed and

Qadhafi's assassination, suicide or execution appear more likely than a capitulation. One news network reported a false alarm of Qadhafi's assassination.

Executions of soldiers by their officers mean the army is ineffective as a force, though units might retain some cohesion. If Qadhafi's side loses, the generals who joined the revolution are likely to seek justice for those who broke the Libyan Army.

The speeches and clumsy TV appearances show dementia and panic. Family defections and departures are always a reliable sign of a regime's end.

In the Liberated East

The dailies al Sharq al Awsat and al Hayat have provided the most detailed reports on conditions in the East that are in the public domain. Snippets follow.

According to the dailies, the situation in Benghazi is stable, especially following senior military defections. Eastern forces are under the command of Major General Abd-al-Fattah Yunus, commander of the army's special forces. Major General Sulayman Mahmud, who was governor of Al-Batnan Province and Tobruk also joined the revolutionaries.

A navy commander in the Benghazi area and the army commander in the city of Al-Bayda joined. The army commander called on Qadhafi to step down immediately. Air forces in the east were reported to have joined the revolutionaries earlier in the week. In al Zawiyah, on the Tunisian border and the fourth largest Libyan city, Major General Al-Mahdi al-Arabi joined the revolutionaries.

According to papers, there is a collective leadership in the East with members from Benghazi and other towns and consisting of army personnel and members of the public. Coordination takes place via Thuraya satellite phones, four of which were donated by a Jordanian communications company. Al Jazeera TV broadcasts are important for coordination and updates, according to the news sources.

The Libyan flag under the monarchy is being called and flown as the Flag of Free Libya.

Comment: As in Tunisia and Egypt, the army is critical to the success or failure of the Libyan uprising. Libya is not engulfed in a civil war. Qadhafi's personal style of rule automatically makes any protest an act of rebellion and the rebellion has quickly morphed into a revolution. If it succeeds, and the prospects look much brighter since al Zawiyah joined the rebellion, the defecting generals will have played a critical role. Every town where a general officer joined the uprising is now in the control of the revolution.

End of NightWatch for 24 February .

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