Le President, C'est Moi

Ivory Coast's president is making a desperate stand to keep his job -- but will his move just mean more misery for a country that's already seen enough?

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—At a campaign event in October, I watched the incumbent president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, dance as if he didn't have a care in the world. We were in the newly refurbished Congress hall of the Hotel Ivoire, filled to the brim with Gbagbo supporters. As the theme to his campaign started playing on the loudspeakers and the audience clapped, the president sauntered down the aisle. Eyes wide open, he shook his hips and cut the air at chest height with his hands in time to the music. The audience sang along to the refrain: "Devant, c'est mais" -- "Ahead of us, it's maize," or in other words: "The opposition isn't much to worry about."

Recently, however, Laurent Gbagbo has had plenty to worry about. Despite his upbeat campaign, Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 presidential election -- the first genuinely open ballot held in the country's independent history -- by Ivory Coast's U.N.-backed independent electoral commission. Instead of packing up his office, however, he resolved to stay. His allies in the country's Constitutional Council nullified millions of votes from the north, where his rival is the favorite, declaring Gbagbo the winner. He took the oath of office, named a cabinet, and began issuing official statements as if nothing had happened.

Unfortunately for Gbagbo, he's not the only one claiming the presidency -- Alassane Ouattara, the opposition candidate who actually won the election, has done the same, setting up an office in a hotel in Abidjan and also swearing in a new government. Both sides are armed -- Ouattara is supported by the leftover rebels from Ivory Coast's recent civil war and a U.N. peacekeeping force of 9,000, while Gbagbo is backed by the army. The United Nations says 50 people have already been killed in post-election violence, victims of armed gangs who have besieged opposition districts during the overnight curfew. And many fear things will get worse before they get better.

With most of the world backing his rival, Gbagbo is under increasing pressure to resign. Unfortunately, it's exactly this kind of pressure that Gbagbo -- a self-styled man of the people -- is least likely to respond to. His caricature in the popular Ivorian weekly comic, Gbich!, features him with long sideburns and a towel draped around his neck to mop up sweat as if he were a boxer -- a style he often adopted during the long years he spent as an opposition politician pounding the streets under a hot tropical sun.

During those years, he was one of the only opposition leaders to challenge Ivory Coast's long-standing President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who died in 1993, leaving the country destabilized and open to a long period of disputed power and civil war, even after Gbagbo finally took office officially in 2000. Through the north-south conflict that followed from 2002 and 2007, it was to Gbagbo's credit that the state remained mostly intact. Civil servants never missed a pay check, the country remained the world's largest cocoa exporter, and sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest port, Abidjan, remained functional and even expanded. Luckily for Gbagbo, the key riches were in the southern tropical zone, which the government had a stronger hold over: cocoa, coffee, rubber, and some oil. But even those in the north -- the rebel zone -- enjoyed virtually uninterrupted electricity and water supplies.

Although Gbagbo held the state together during the civil-war years and helped engineer the eventual reconciliation in 2007, promising that elections would be held imminently, he didn't escape the process unscathed. Ivoirians now view the decade of Gbagbo's rule as their most disastrous since independence. When he was elected in 2000, Gbagbo was handed a five-year mandate -- but it grew longer each year as elections were delayed over and over again. His rule became a symbol of the tired, dogged conflict that simply wouldn't let Ivory Coast free.

Going into the 2010 elections, facing Ouattara -- an expat technocrat, former prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny, and an IMF deputy managing director -- Gbagbo knew his candidacy was a tough sell. So he focused on driving home two messages to the crowds. The first was to blame the lack of progress on the war -- and in turn to blame the war on Ouattara, who comes from the north and shares a support base with the rebels. The second strategy was to reframe the past decade as a battle for real independence from France, the former colonial power -- a tactic that played well to the continuing Ivoirian sense of inferiority and resentment toward the country's former colonial overlords. After all, France still controls large parts of the economy, including the port, railways, electric grid, water system, and airport.

But as results from the second runoff started coming in on Nov. 28, the confidence of Gbagbo's campaign slogans -- like "Rien en face" ("We're up against nothing") -- began to look misplaced. Ouattara formed an alliance with former President Henri Konan Bédié, whose support base comes from the country's largest ethnic group, the Baoule. As areas that had voted for Bedie in the first round turned to Ouattara in large numbers in the second round of the runoff, it was clear the alliance would hold -- Ouattara was going to win. And Gbagbo, the man who'd fought under the cry "We win or we win," started to consider another option.

Fortunately for him, he still had a card up his sleeve. A year earlier, Gbagbo had appointed a close political ally to be head of the Constitutional Council, which still has the final say on election results. Paul Yao N'Dre accepted complaints from Gbagbo's camp that the vote in the north (Ouattara's base) had been disrupted by ballot stuffing and electoral violence. He disqualified more than half a million votes in areas that voted massively for Ouattara in the first round -- and Gbagbo stayed put.

The international community has made its displeasure known since the beginning of the standoff. Ivory Coast has been kicked out of the African Union until it has just one (not two) presidents. Gbagbo and his family face sanctions and travel bans from the European Union -- not something that's likely to bother Gbagbo, who has barely been back to the old continent since a coup attempt in 2002 caught him unawares in Italy -- and the United Nations resolved on Dec. 20 to keep its peacekeepers there, protecting Ouattara's camp.

And so this former history teacher turned populist opposition leader turned president is fast gaining a reputation as the African Hugo Chávez: involved in a bitter struggle with the "international community" and drumming up support with sermons on the evil imperialists. In his first televised address to the nation since the election, on Dec. 21, he claimed that he is the true president and accused "the international community" of "[declaring] war on the Ivory Coast."

In Francophone Africa, such talk isn't so easily written off as ridiculous -- but the real conspiracy may be different from the purported one. In October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-hand man, Claude Gueant, paid a visit to Ivory Coast, declaring that France was not backing any one candidate in the elections. Privately, however, diplomats whispered that France preferred a Gbagbo victory in the long-delayed elections as the best guarantee of stability for French business interests, which have hardly suffered despite the anti-colonial rhetoric.

Where the standoff goes from here is still anyone's guess. One of Gbagbo's nicknames here is "the baker," because he "rolls everyone into flour" -- an expression meaning that he finds a way to come out on top in any situation. In this case, it remains to be seen whether Gbagbo will live up to his reputation or if the rebel groups and peacekeepers will propel Ouattara into the presidency -- but someone is certainly going to get rolled.



The Missing Assassin

A U.N. panel promises to shed new light on the unsolved murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. But one major suspect won’t be available to comment -- he’s been killed, too.

As Lebanon braces for a U.N. tribunal to announce indictments in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, one key suspect is beyond the scope of any court of law.

Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's chief of operations until his own assassination in Damascus in 2008, likely played a role in the massive car bombing that claimed the lives of the former Lebanese prime minister and 22 others in Beirut. Mughniyeh's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badreddine, was questioned by the tribunal in April. Experts on Lebanon and Hezbollah say it is difficult to envision a crime of such scale and consequence without Mughniyeh's involvement.

"My guess is no," said Mona Yacoubian, director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), asked if the Hariri assassination could have been pulled off without Mughniyeh's knowledge. She added, "It would be hard to know how it could have been done without the connivance of Syria given its role in Lebanon in 2005."

After a three-year investigation by a U.N. special tribunal, much more is known about the assassination of Hariri than the death of Mughniyeh. Press reports have linked Hezbollah to cell phones used by the Hariri plotters. Yacoubian and other Lebanon analysts say indictments are expected against as many as half a dozen Hezbollah operatives as soon as this month or early next year.

Hezbollah has reacted defiantly, suggesting without any evidence that Israel was somehow involved in Hariri's murder. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, threatened last month to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest a militia member.

But the Syrians, nervous at first that they would be blamed given well-publicized differences between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now seem to believe that the tribunal will leave the regime alone despite its long, complicated relationship with the Lebanese Shiite group. "There have been no indications that Syrians are among the list of indicted names," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Could that be in part because Mughniyeh was involved and he is now in no position to speak?

Landis doubts Syrian responsibility for Mughniyeh's death, noting that he was considered a "hero" in Syria for his role in helping to chase Israel from southern Lebanon. "For the Syrians to kill their own hero -- even for the most wizened Mukhabarat -- would be very demoralizing," Landis said, using the Arabic term for secret police. "On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for Israel or America" given the number of Americans, Israelis, and Jews Mughniyeh helped kill.

Still, questions continue to swirl around the death of Mughniyeh, a master terrorist who served both Iranian and Syrian masters in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. Born in southern Lebanon in 1962, he began his militant career in the 1970s as a bodyguard in Beirut for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, having been "discovered" by Arafat aide Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad. Mughniyeh later also served as a bodyguard for Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Shiite cleric who was close to Hezbollah and had a wide following in Lebanon until his death earlier this year.

Mughniyeh went on to become a seminal player in Hezbollah-linked international terrorism, implicated in attacks that killed hundreds of Americans, including 241 Marines in their Beirut barracks in 1983 and U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. Mughniyeh was also implicated in attacks on Argentine Jews in the early 1990s in apparent retaliation for the Israeli assassination in Lebanon in 1992 of Abbas al-Musawi, Hezbollah's leader prior to Nasrallah. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities had put Mughniyeh at the very top of the U.S. wanted list.

Until his murder, however, few had even seen Mughniyeh's picture. After his death, posters of a chubby bearded man in camouflage resembling an Islamic Rob Reiner suddenly plastered the southern suburbs of Beirut and streets in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Mughniyeh died on the evening of Feb. 12, 2008, shortly after he left an Iranian reception   marking the 29th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. According to witnesses quoted at the time by the Washington Post, a powerful bomb detonated in his Mitsubishi Pajero as he stepped into the car. The blast shattered Mugniyeh's body and hurled parts into a building entrance 15 feet away.

His violent death in an upscale Damascus neighborhood not known for such attacks created a crisis in Iranian-Syrian relations, a fact that has been underlined by recent WikiLeaks disclosures.

Even though both Iran and Syria publicly blamed Israel and the United States for the killing, Iran said it would mount an independent investigation. The results of that probe -- if it ever took place -- have never been announced. Likewise, Syria has never announced the results of its own investigation.

A Dec. 22, 2009, cable to the State Department signed by the chargé d'affaires in Damascus, Chuck Hunter, noted that Qassem Suleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, had just visited Syria for the first time in months accompanying a high-level delegation led by Iranian national security advisor Saeed Jalili. (The U.S. Treasury Department designated Quds force a terrorist entity in October 2007.)

"Reportedly accompanying Jalili, Soleimani returned to Damascus after a long absence, perhaps a reflection of lingering tensions between Iran and Syria that erupted after the February 2008 assassination of Hizballah military strategist Imad Mugniyah in the Syrian capital," the cable said, using alternate spellings of Hezbollah and Suleimani. "‘Soleimani represents the business end of the resistance,' commented [name withheld], also reluctant to discuss the sensitive issue of Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah military cooperation."

Randa Slim, an independent consultant and former scholar at USIP who has extensive contacts with Hezbollah officials, says that for six months after Mughniyeh's death, Hezbollah forbade senior cadres from going to Damascus.

The Guardian newspaper, in a Dec. 7 article, wrote that the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdel Aziz Khoja, told U.S. diplomats in Beirut in 2008 that Hezbollah believed Syria was responsible for Mughniyeh's killing.

The Saudi envoy noted that no Syrian official attended Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut. He said that Iran sent its foreign minister, who "had come to calm down Hezbollah and keep it from taking action against Syria."

Did the Syrians kill Mughniyeh or conveniently step aside to allow Israelis or the CIA to do the deed? No one is likely ever to know for sure.

Meanwhile, the chances that others involved in Hariri's death will face justice even in absentia also appear remote. U.N. officials plan to try to keep the indictments confidential for several weeks to allow time for the evidence to be evaluated, but the names are likely to leak.

Slim told an audience at USIP in Washington on Dec. 8 that after the indictments are known, "Most likely these people will be whisked to Syria and put on a plane to Iran and we'll never hear of them again."