Dispatch

The Second Republic of Tahrir

The ruling military generals in Cairo tried to placate the swelling crowds calling for their ouster today. But as the battles raged, it appears the junta may have already lost the people's trust.

CAIRO – Tahrir Square is back. For the past four days, protesters opposed to military rule have done battle with Egyptian security forces -- and on Tuesday, Nov. 22, the tide appeared to finally turn in their favor. Buoyed by crowds that exceeded 100,000, the protesters forced the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to announce an accelerated transition to civilian rule. But with mistrust between the two sides running high, nobody is celebrating just yet.

"The Armed Forces do not seek power and are ready to leave power immediately through the holding of a popular referendum if necessary," SCAF chairman Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi said in a televised address. "Some tried to drag us into confrontation … But we will control ourselves to the maximum. We will never kill a single Egyptian."

Nevertheless, the Health Ministry reported that at least 29 people had died during the latest spasm of unrest -- and Egyptians' growing disenchantment with the SCAF has certainly been on full display. On the night of Nov. 20 in Tahrir Square, a raucous mob enveloped the steps leading to the Omar Makram mosque. About an hour earlier, a combined army and police charge -- backed by waves of tear gas -- had violently cleared the area. The soldiers didn't stay long, pausing only to set fire to the collection of tents in the square.

In the wake of that attack, a pair of senior army officers ventured to the mosque to address the crowds, and apparently negotiate some sort of détente. But the protesters quickly turned on them, and the situation devolved into a frantic rescue. Volunteers from the mosque formed a human chain to stave off the enraged crowds seeking to reach the two officers inside.

One bearded man standing on the steps shouted, "These men are under our protection. Any hand that touches them will be cut off!"

The stand-off eventually was defused and the army officers were hustled out of the building, making their getaway in a waiting ambulance. "It's over. They're gone," said one witness. Then he laughed and turned sarcastic, adding, "They turned over Gilad Shalit. The hostage is free."

It's safe to say that SCAF officials, riding high in February after being embraced by the revolutionary movement intent on toppling Hosni Mubarak's regime, could never have imagined that army officers would be fleeing from an angry mob in Tahrir just a few months later.

Some, such as prominent activist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy, presciently argued from Day One against Egyptians putting their faith in the military. "A real democratic Egypt is not necessarily the Egypt that the generals and the United States want to see," Hamalawy told al Jazeera on Feb. 11, the night of Mubarak's resignation. "I do not trust those generals."

But critics like Hamalawy were then swimming against the national tide. Inside and outside Tahrir, the army and SCAF were hailed as heroes, and the country was widely regarded as being in capable and trusted hands.

It has been mostly downhill from there.

Since February, the SCAF has managed to alienate just about every force in the Egyptian political landscape. This collection of senior generals has proven to be arrogant, tone-deaf, secretive, and strangely thin-skinned about any public criticism. As a result, the list of grievances held by the protesters in Tahrir Square has grown long: The universally demanded purge and overhaul of the Interior Ministry proved to be shallow and cosmetic. The trials of Mubarak and his senior lieutenants have been chaotic and, in the eyes of many, insincere. An estimated 12,000 Egyptian civilians have been sentenced before non-transparent military trials. Prominent activists such as Alaa Abdel Fatah and Asmaa Mahfouz have faced charges simply for speaking out against the SCAF. Military censors have guaranteed that SCAF is treated respectfully on state television, which has muted direct criticism of the ruling generals during the current unrest and painted the new Tahrir protesters as fanatics intent on sabotaging the country's democratic transition.

Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and a longtime political activist, theorized that the career military men who hold power in the SCAF simply didn't have the background or mindset to handle being thrust into a raucous, newly democratic environment like post-Mubarak Egypt.

"You're talking about a military mentality. It's the first time anyone has tried to discuss anything with them," Al Aswany told me, in an interview before the current waves of unrest began. "A normal military general, he's either giving orders or receiving orders and carrying them out. The idea that we can sit down together and I can tell them, ‘This decision was wrong,' it's outside of their culture."

These latest waves of public anger serve as a mass acknowledgement that the revolution is only half-finished. What started as a genuine popular uprising on Jan. 25 actually ended 18 days later in a palace coup -- with the regime's military wing tossing the Mubarak cabal overboard in order to preserve their influence.

Now the thousands of angry, mostly young, protesters battling security forces in Tahrir, Alexandria, and elsewhere want to press the reset button on the entire endeavor. These new revolutionary cadres are far from unified in their demands. There's definitely no consensus on whether the parliamentary elections -- scheduled to start on Monday, Nov. 28, and continue in three regional rounds through early January -- should be delayed. But there did seem to be universal agreement that the SCAF must accelerate its proposed transitional timetable that would leave it holding executive power through all of 2012.

That demand was granted late on Tuesday, when Tantawi proposed moving the final transition date up by more than eight months, to June 2012. How that offer will be received inside of Tahrir remains an open question -- but it will probably resonate in the world outside of the square, where residents are deeply weary of post-revolutionary uncertainty and eager for any plan that promises a rapid return to something resembling normality. Those planning to insist on Tantawi's immediate departure run the very real risk of being marginalized and vilified.

Tantawi also said he had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's entire government. But Sharaf, who assumed the post with a great deal of credibility among the activists, has long since been dismissed by many here as simply too weak to stand up to the SCAF. There's no talk just yet of who might replace the premier, but there is renewed discussion of some sort of ruling presidential council involving Nobel Laureate and opposition activist Mohammed ElBaradei, a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood, and others.

"Right now, there are no elections," said the secular activist Mohamed Ghoneim, as he emerged coughing from the front lines on Monday night with a gas mask dangling from his neck. "We're back to square one, and anyone who doesn't see this doesn't know these people."

The new revolutionary Tahrir is a very different animal than the original version. It's an angrier and more violent place. The front lines have settled into World War I-style trench warfare, with protesters and combined police and military forces battling for days over the same parcel of asphalt on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, right in front of the former campus of American University in Cairo. It's exhausting to even be near the front lines for very long, amidst the regular whump of freshly launched tear gas canisters, the painful burn of the gas, and the very real threat of being trampled in a panicked mass retreat. Tahrir now is uplifting and inspiring in many ways, but also tense and nerve-wracking.

Behind the front lines, the trademark Tahrir organization and community spirit has already taken hold. The volunteer cleanup crews are constantly at work, diligently bagging the enormous amounts of garbage produced by a mass gathering. But there are also  new wrinkles appropriate for the Republic of Tahrir's current war footing. Teams of motorcycle couriers stand ready to ferry the wounded straight from the front lines to an array of well-stocked medical clinics. A steady stream of ambulances evacuate the more seriously wounded to local hospitals. Other volunteers form human chains to clear a path for the motorcycles to deliver their injured charges. As new protestors approach the front lines, vinegar-soaked rags and a novel, milky yeast-and-water solution that counteracts the effects of the tear gas are offered.

But unlike January, this isn't a festival; it's a fight. That old revolutionary spirit may be burning bright in Tahrir again, but nobody there would think of holding a concert right now.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Dispatch

Propagandastan

Why is the Pentagon spending tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars to whitewash the image of Central Asian dictatorships?

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – When people read a news website, they don't usually imagine that it is being run by a major producer of fighter jets and smart bombs. But when the Pentagon has its own vision of America's foreign policy, and the funds to promote it, it can put a $23 billion defense contractor in a unique position to report on the war on terror.

Over the past three years, a subdivision of Virginia-based General Dynamics has set up and run a network of eight "influence websites" funded by the Defense Department with more than $120 million in taxpayer money. The sites, collectively known as the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI) and operated by General Dynamics Information Technology, focus on geographic areas under the purview of various U.S. combatant commands, including U.S. Central Command. In its coverage of Uzbekistan, a repressive dictatorship increasingly important to U.S. military goals in Afghanistan, a TRWI website called Central Asia Online has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats.

Central Asia Online was created in 2008, a time when Washington's ability to rely on Pakistan as a partner in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan was steadily waning. In the search for alternative land routes to supply U.S. troops, Uzbekistan seemed the best option. Nearby Iran was a non-starter, and Uzbekistan's infrastructure -- used by the Soviets to get in and out of Afghanistan during their ill-fated war there -- was far superior to that of neighboring Tajikistan. Today, the U.S. military moves massive amounts of cargo across Uzbekistan. By year's end, the Pentagon hopes to see 75 percent of all non-lethal military supplies arrive in Afghanistan via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a web of land-based transport routes stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Amu Darya River.

Gas-rich Uzbekistan, the most populous of the formerly Soviet Central Asian republics, has been ruled since before independence in 1991 by strongman President Islam Karimov, who is regularly condemned in the West for running one of the world's most repressive and corrupt regimes. Freedom House gives Uzbekistan the lowest possible score in its Freedom in the World report, while watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on widespread torture and forced child labor. The respected Russian human rights group Memorial says Karimov holds more political prisoners than all other post-Soviet republics combined, often through an "arbitrary interpretation" of the law. The overwhelming majority of those convicted are somehow linked to Islam. Memorial has found that thousands of "Muslims whose activities pose no threat to social order and security are being sentenced on fabricated charges of terrorism and extremism."

Nonetheless, with Pakistani-American relations at a desperate low, Washington now seems more eager than ever to make overtures to Tashkent. In the past, Karimov has responded to U.S. criticism by threatening to shut down the supply route to Afghanistan. In 2005, after Washington demanded an investigation into the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan, he closed the American airbase at Karshi-Khanabad. So Washington's expressions of disapproval have given way to praise. In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously commended Tashkent for its "progress" on political freedoms, and, more significantly, President Barack Obama moved to end restrictions on military aid, in place since 2004. Then, during an Oct. 22 visit to Tashkent, Clinton thanked the Uzbek leader in person for his cooperation. A State Department official traveling with her said he believed Karimov wants to leave a democratic legacy for "his kids and his grandchildren."

Theoretically, with the restrictions lifted, General Dynamics stands to profit. The company has already shown interest in finding clients in Central Asia, hawking its wares at a defense exposition in Kazakhstan last year. This potential self-interest casts an unflattering light on Central Asia Online's flattering coverage of the region's calcified dictatorships, especially Uzbekistan.

Take a March story praising Tashkent's effort to register religious groups. The story does not mention reputable organizations' allegations about arbitrary arrests of Christians and Muslims from unregistered groups, but cites state-affiliated clergy lauding the country's religious freedom and praises the feared security services for acting within the law. The story ends by saying, "Uzbekistan is doing everything necessary to ensure its citizens have the proper conditions to exercise freedom of conscience."

That is patently not so, says John Kinahan of Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog: "The only thing harmonious in Uzbekistan is a constant picture of violations of just about every human right you can name, which is certainly not producing any meaningful exchange of views of what is going on or how people relate to each other."

Reasons for fear remain abundant. On Nov. 17, a closed court near Tashkent convicted 16 men of belonging to a banned Islamist group. Independent reports say they were tortured into signing confessions. The families are despondent, unsure how they will survive without their breadwinners, who were locked away for six to 12 years.

Sometimes the website downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government. On Sept. 13, the State Department singled out Uzbekistan as a country "of particular concern" for religious freedom, noting "serious abuses" in the government's "campaign against extremists or those participating in underground Islamic activity." The day before the report was released, Central Asia Online ran a story defending Tashkent, entitled, "Uzbekistan fights terror, not religion, analysts say." The story canvased members of state-sanctioned religious groups to paint a picture of tolerance inside the country, concluding, simplistically, that "most agree with the crackdown on terror."

"It is not possible to have any independent surveys of what people think of the situation," says Kinahan. "Uzbekistan is a serial human rights violator. People there have a well-founded fear of expressing their true opinions ... it can be dangerous."

Particularly in its coverage related to extremism and terrorism, Central Asia Online toes Tashkent's line and simultaneously demonstrates a level of access unheard of for other Western information gatherers. Foreign reporters, including myself, are regularly denied visas. The few who get in must work undercover, pretending to be aid workers or tourists. Local journalists have little freedom, running the risk of arrest on trumped-up charges of spying or threatening security if they stray from official viewpoints. Meanwhile, respected foreign news outlets like the Associated Press are denied accreditation; websites considered critical of the government, such as Uznews.net and FerganaNews.com, are routinely blocked. Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 163rd out of 178 countries in the organization's 2010 Press Freedom Index and called the country an "Internet Enemy" this year. That Central Asia Online has seemingly unfettered access to the country's feared secret police -- the SNB -- is alone suspicious, suggesting collusion, says an Uzbek journalist who has written secretly for foreign news organizations.

"It looks like the website has a special and close relationship with the Uzbek government," he told me, responding to several Central Asia Online stories on extremism. "The authors have access to officials and clerics who customarily refuse to meet independent-minded journalists; they only talk to government-affiliated journalists whose work is approved by the SNB."

In its stories on alleged extremists, Central Asia Online does not mention documented government abuses and does not cite skeptical analysts who might question Tashkent's claims or raise the possibility that its heavy-handed tactics serve to radicalize practicing Muslims. In an August story about official assertions that the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is recruiting among Uzbek labor migrants, the author, "Shakar Saadi," cites a named SNB officer and even quotes a prisoner -- a startling feat of reporting prowess, considering that the U.N. special rapporteur on torture has been denied access to Uzbekistan's prisons for years.

Over the past two years, the budget for the TRWI websites has increased from $10.1 million to $121 million, according to DOD records. But the parties involved in the project have been reluctant to discuss details. Central Asia Online did not respond to repeated requests for comment, sent via the website, over the course of six months. General Dynamics Information Technology referred questions to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). A spokesman for SOCOM in Tampa would not provide details on why the budget grew so quickly. He said the websites' content is coordinated with regional embassies, but "developed in support of a set of combatant command-assigned objectives."

Representatives of all five U.S. embassies in Central Asia, however, told me they have nothing to do with Central Asia Online. In Tajikistan, where the U.S. embassy has a commendable record of defending media freedoms, a press attaché volunteered that Central Asia Online does not even receive the embassy's press releases. A spokesman for another embassy in the region said he had never heard of the site.

All this raises the question: Is U.S. taxpayer money being given to a for-profit military contractor to shill for a Central Asian dictator, just because he's a useful ally in the war on terror?

"It's disturbing, to say the least," says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Barnard College who writes frequently about America's military footprint in Central Asia. "I would not expect anyone who is otherwise involved as a contractor or a subcontractor for U.S. security agencies to provide objective news analysis of terrorism. Part of covering terrorism means covering both the emergence of legitimate threats, but also covering how the specter of terror is used as political cover for governments to clamp down on political opponents," Cooley said. He called the "fluff" on Central Asia Online "just propaganda."

The bitter irony is that, through its uncritical support for Tashkent's anti-extremism measures, the Pentagon is implicitly endorsing policies believed by many to foment discontent and radicalization in a country that borders Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Tashkent is happy to use this renewed engagement with Washington to boost its image.

The TRWI websites do not hide their affiliation with the U.S. military, stating it clearly in their "About" sections. The original Pentagon solicitation called the sites -- including the Southeast European Times and Magharebia -- "tools in support of strategic and long-term U.S. Government goals and objectives," not professional journalism. Yet for a small outlet covering an obscure corner of the world, Central Asia Online does relatively well. The site has published an average of 71 stories per month this year, which, a SOCOM spokesman told me, garner some 168,000 article reads, 85,000 unique visitors, and 380 reader comments per month.

The target is "online audiences" in the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics, plus Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the material -- mostly about security and published in English, Russian, Urdu, and Farsi -- also seeps into local newspapers, websites, and news aggregators around the world, expanding the site's readership. Though it is the responsibility of those outlets to attribute, many, at least in Central Asia, do not, billing the stories as original, local reporting, rather than DOD propaganda.

Apart from its security focus, Central Asia Online sometimes reports on sports, business, and civil society -- also uncritically, careful to cite government sources on message.

An early July feature, "Uzbekistan proposes more government openness," praised Karimov's instructions to Uzbek officials to write more press releases, which the story said would "ensure public access to information about state agencies and regulate procedures for informing the public about their activities." Local journalists (the kind cleared by the SNB) and officials told Central Asia Online how free information will blossom in Uzbekistan thanks to Karimov's decree. The story did not mention, however, Karimov's June 27 warning that "destructive forces" trawling the Internet are "controlling young minds."

In the weeks following Karimov's speech, while Central Asia Online was praising his country's "openness," Tashkent was blocking dozens of real news portals including the New York Times and Human Rights Watch. Zealous officials even made sure that, when a state-sponsored festival celebrating the .UZ Internet domain was held in Tashkent, no one could get too excited: dozens of websites and international media portals were blocked. Throughout it all, Central Asia Online remained open and accessible in Uzbekistan.