The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

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Old State Instruments Are Still in Place: What’s Changed in Egypt?

CounterPunch, June 5, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, June 4, 2012

The day of judgment for Hosni Mubarak arrived on June 2. The 84-year-old deposed president was given a life sentence with his interior minister Habib al-Adly for the killing of hundreds of protesters during last year’s uprising. Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges. The court also acquitted a number of key interior ministry officials and security chiefs. Some Egyptians celebrated immediately after the verdicts were announced. Soon, however, the mood turned angry, because many thought that the verdicts were too lenient. Both Mubarak and Adly will have the right to appeal. Other factors, too, continue to foment anxiety in the country.

Millions of Egyptians had voted in the first round of the presidential election only a few days before. Just who will become president after the final round in a fortnight is not certain, but the drift of Egyptian politics is clear enough. The two leading candidates who emerged from the first round and will fight it out for the presidency of the most important Arab state are poles apart; the moderates have been eliminated from the race. One candidate to emerge from the first round was Muhammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just behind Mursi was Ahmed Shafiq, a former military officer and briefly prime minister in the final days of the Mubarak presidency.

Shafiq was initially disqualified under a law prohibiting figures associated with the previous regime, but hastily reinstated as a presidential candidate. He received favorable coverage in the state media in the run-up to the first round. When the votes had been counted, the difference between Mursi and Shafiq was no more than one percent and both went into the second round.

The most fundamental question to arise at this juncture is what has changed in Egypt? The Egyptian uprising that saw the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in 2011 was largely bloodless as far as the protesting millions were concerned. The same could not be said about gangs, said to be associated with Mubarak’s security services, who attacked peaceful crowds, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

Events have since included attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, their churches and other members of the public. The military has maintained, even consolidated, its hold while Islamic parties have come to dominate the new parliament after recent elections. There is inevitably a tacit understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political force, and Egypt’s ruling Military Council. It is a familiar scenario in which two equally powerful sides learn to live with each other in the same environment.

Those eliminated include some high profile figures like Amr Mousa, former Arab League Secretary General and one-time cabinet minister under Mubarak. Supporters of the Egyptian Spring were bitterly disappointed after their vote split between Hamdin Sabbahi, a leftist, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, a physician and lawyer renowned for years of opposition to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Fatouh had broken from the Muslim Brotherhood last year and stood as an independent. Together, Sabbahi and Fatouh secured forty percent of the vote, but found themselves eliminated. The feeling among many Egyptians is that the forces of real change were so close, yet so far and will have to wait for another day. The instruments of state power are still in the same place.

Their bitterness was summed up by a spokesman of the secular liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Khairy. He described Mursi as an “Islamic fascist” and Shafiq as a “military fascist.” And he lamented that the outcome of the first round was “the worst case scenario.”

For a country which endured long years of brutal dictatorship, helped by one superpower or the other, and then went through a spring which brought optimism on the horizon, the future looks far from promising. Certainly insofar as the moderate majority of nearly 60 percent Egyptians is concerned.

Thousands came out to demonstrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo after the results of the first round were confirmed. Protests are continuing in other parts of the country. Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram acknowledged that crowds vented their anger outside the Constitutional Court, insisting that they would never accept Shafiq––describing him as the “second Mubarak.” Amid ugly scenes, protesters were attacked by unidentified thugs. Shafiq’s headquarters was set ablaze after being ransacked and his home came under attack.

Against the background of these developments, large numbers of Egyptians continue to feel disenfranchised. To them, the second round promises one of two unwelcome scenarios and neither candidate’s victory may bring genuine change in a country yearning for democracy. The election of Shafiq would mean a continuation of the old era. It would suit the Egyptian armed forces, the United States and Israel much more than a victory for Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been episodes in the past, both during Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, when the regime entered into a tacit understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, though, the Islamists dominate the Egyptian parliament, but real power remains with the armed forces. Egypt still does not have a new constitution and the powers of the president and parliament are yet to be defined. Powerful internal and external players are still in the game. Like the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak and his associates, Egypt’s emerging system is on trial.

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On Power, Morality and Courage

My reflections last week were about the United States grand strategy anchored in the energy resources and Israel’s defense in the Middle East. How that grand strategy, offering a validation for the Cold War in Asia and Africa, has lived on since the end of the Soviet threat two decades ago gives us plenty of food for thought.

Merciless continuation of that grand strategy meant the same old policies of propping up corrupt, repressive dictatorships, which at long last brought the Arab Spring in late 2010, and which is now a bitter and bloody winter. New retaliation by Egypt’s ruling Military Council in recent days has created conditions for a second revolution in that country, whether it happens or not.

The crowds at Tahrir Square are smaller than early this year. The Muslim Brotherhood, eyeing the parliamentary elections starting tomorrow (November 28), does not support the latest protests. The Brotherhood has calculated that it does not want to forego the opportunity offered by the coming elections, in which it is expected to do well. It also does not want to risk provoking Egypt’s Military Council, and more importantly, Washington.

Little do Brotherhood members seem to appreciate the history of the West using Islamists for its narrow interests, then turning on former allies in the name of fighting extremism.

Nonetheless, the protesting crowds at Tahrir are ever more determined. With events threatening to slip out of control, the Obama administration again does not know how to deal with the crisis. For the moment, America’s response is that “we condemn the excessive use of force by the police … and urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint.” With no warning or possibility of restricting American aid to Egypt’s armed forces, this is the softest standard reaction from the U.S. State Department to government onslaught on dissidents in a friendly country.

The latest events in Egypt, and violence and clampdown in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, have somewhat overshadowed the Western maneuverings in Syria and Iran, twin targets of America’s grand strategy which I discussed earlier. A few days ago, STRATFOR published a useful analysis providing additional context to events in the Middle East with reference to Syria and Iran. It also explained reasons for escalated anxiety in Washington and friendly capitals with regard to Iran.

Feeling misled when they supported the United Nations Security Council resolution for a “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, China and Russia will not repeat what they now regard as a mistake. NATO’s conduct in the war in Libya has damaged, perhaps fatally, the future of humanitarian interventions with the Security Council’s mandate. Hence Syria is unlikely to be Libya, with the United Nations acting as a tool. It partly explains reports in the region that France is training Syrian rebels to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, Britain, Canda and France, all have increased the pressure on Iran in the last few days, superficially because of the “nuclear threat” which Tehran poses to the West’s interests. In reality, the West’s anxieties about Iran have far more to do with other events challenging America’s grand strategy in the region. Washington alleges that Tehran’s aim is to acquire the bomb, for which the evidence provided is thin, if not misleading and possibly false.

Journalist Gareth Porter of the Inter-Press Service has disassembled the U.S.-backed case asserting that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program. Porter’s determined effort to uncover the truth flatly contradicts the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, which claims that Tehran might be developing nuclear weapons. In pointing the finger at Tehran, the IAEA director general Yukiya Amano, who had already committed himself to the United States, played a crucial role.

The New Yorker’s investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, speaking to Democracy Now!, also described Amano’s views as the “stuff of fantasyland.” What happened with regard to Iraq in 2003 is now beginning to happen with regard to Iran. Following on his illustrious predecessors, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, Amano has not covered himself in glory, given that the IAEA report, prepared under his authority, has been so discredited.

The United States National Intelligence Estimate 2007 acknowledged that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003, when America invaded Iraq. There has been no evidential change since, and Tehran continues to deny developing nuclear weapons. As the case against Iran is ceaselessly repeated in major media outlets, it is only right to state here that Iran denies it is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. In any case, it has a right to enrich uranium, within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. On the contrary Israel, widely believed to be in possession of a substantial nuclear arsenal, would neither sign the NPT, nor would it submit its nuclear program to IAEA inspection.

Aggressive posturing by Israel and its allies in Washington, London and Paris against Iran and Syria runs the risk of persuading Tehran that it has no alternative but to manufacture the bomb one day. Should NATO’s hawks and their Gulf allies succeed in toppling the Syrian regime, resulting in chaos and bloodbath, Iran’s fears will only be heightened. The current game of brinkmanship leads to nowhere but the road to catastrophe. The cost will be high. Who will pay the price and whose interests will be served are the questions we must ask.

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Ruthlessly Pursuing Middle East Grand Strategy

Al-Ahram Weekly, November 24-30, 2011

Popular uprisings that began with peaceful protests in Tunisia and Algeria nearly a year ago, and spread across the Arab world, have created a new reality, not only in countries to experience political awakening, but far beyond. More worryingly for Washington, the Arab Spring created fresh uncertainties and pressures for United States policy.

With the first anniversary of those momentous events approaching, there is growing resentment among many Arabs who feel that their revolutions have been hijacked by forces not originally anticipated. Demonstrations in EgyptJordanBahrain and Kuwait in the last few days are acute symptoms of the prevailing mood in the region.

Two opposing trends are at work. The pressure from below succeeded in overthrowing the regimes in Algeria and Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak, though not the ruling military order, in Egypt. But the pressure from above has been decisive in the overthrow and lynching of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after NATO’s intervention. It also continues to sustain Bahrain’s minority Sunni ruling class, thanks to the entry of Saudi troops and Western military assistance.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is much more resilient, despite every conceivable attempt by the United States and its Arab and European allies. I say “every conceivable attempt” because the prospect of the United Nations Security Council approving a Libya-type full-scale Western-led intervention in Syria is much less likely. The Russians and the Chinese would not play ball with America, Britain and France.

Even so, external forces look determined to decide Syria’s fate. A lot depends on whether the Syrian armed forces will mostly remain loyal to the regime. Rumors of defections from the Syrian military thrive, but for now the military as an institution appears to be with Assad––just about. However, with the United States determined to eventually see regime change in Syria too, the course of events there could be even more bloody. Its implications for the Middle East, starting from neighboring Lebanon, will be very serious indeed.

What began so hopefully in the Arab world a year ago has transpired into something bloody and ugly. Authoritarian regimes, assisted and sustained by great powers, have long dominated the region. Although the Cold War ended and the Soviet threat ceased more than two decades ago, the United States continues to pursue its grand strategy in the region with increasing and desperate vigor. The need for oil and support for Israel remain the two fundamental planks of U.S. foreign policy. The Arab Spring threatened the status quo, and with it America’s interests, in the Middle East. It had to be reversed.

What we see now is a counterrevolution from above, trying to frustrate the will of the people. After Libya, the only exception is Syria. Democracy would be very welcome there, as it would be throughout the Arab world. But turmoil inspired by foreign powers is not what the region needs.

The supreme irony in all this is that both Libya and Syria, now being targeted by Washington on grounds of humanitarian intervention, had actually collaborated with the torture program during America’s “war on terror.” The Libyan and Syrian regimes accepted detainees rendered by the U.S. and British intelligence agencies and tortured them in their notorious prisons. As for old friends like Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they had to be abandoned. They had served their purpose and become liabilities. The tide of popular opposition to them had become unstoppable.

Political expediency demanded that they be sacrificed in the interest of Washington’s alliance with the military in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and the pace of change be controlled. Emboldened by Washington’s understanding and encouragement, the Egyptian military has been tightening its grip in the country. A climate of fear and sorrow pervades the streets of Cairo in advance of parliamentary elections beginning on November 28. And in response to calls for limiting military assistance to Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reaffirmed that the United States is against “imposing any conditions.”

Egypt is the biggest, most powerful country in the Arab world. Compliance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading oil exporter and most influential in the Islamic world, is vital for Israeli security and the continuing U.S. supremacy in the Middle East.

Hence it is vital for the Obama administration that the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with smaller Gulf states, remain beholden to Washington.

Double standards of international law for friends and foes is the name of the game while the United States pursues its grand strategy in the Middle East. Not learning lessons from the calamitous legacy of America’s wars under the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, and more recently from George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” it is “Carry On Barack Obama.”

As we approach the next chapter of recent bloody history, it is difficult to escape a deeper sense of foreboding.

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Spring in the Arabian Desert

Since the outbreak of peaceful protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in December last year, popular rebellions against authoritarian rule have swept the Arab world. Extraordinary acts of courage and non-violent defiance in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere have been witnessed. Citizens have taken great risks, made sacrifices, set shining examples of character and selflessness.

This sudden and refreshing turn of events raised hopes of an end to a long, dark winter. It seemed that autocratic rulers no longer would be able to suppress life, which burst out with vigor like young plants do as winter weakens. A fledgling Arab Spring was born.

With the recent elections for a 217-member Constituent Assembly, the spring has taken another step toward blossoming in the Tunisian desert. For the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisia has had free elections. The country has led the way for the rest of the Arab world just as it did with the arrival of spring ten months ago. The campaign was generally peaceful. It was vibrant, with more than 90 political parties and independent groups taking part. Now the job of forming a transitional government and drawing up a new constitution lies ahead.

So Tunisia has taken a hesitant step toward building a society for common good. Aristotle called it the spring of all human actions in his classic, A Treatise on Government. Tunisians have recognized that they must rise up and turn the country into a community of wellbeing. And they have done something about. For the chances of achieving common wellbeing become more and more remote as the number of individuals holding power in a country diminishes. In this respect, there is little difference between the recent past and the old pages of history.

Through elections, Tunisians have articulated a desire to see their nation as one where a citizen, once a rebel, can become a legislator and one day can return to being a magistrate, a teacher, a priest, a farmer, or a trader, and continue to play a useful role in society.

Given the freedom to express their preference, a people’s choice reflects their history, their cultural heritage, experience and lessons learned. The moderate Islamist Renaissance (Innahda) party––once outlawed under Ben Ali’s dictatorship and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi living in exile in Britain––has won 90 seats in the Constituent Assembly, by far the largest, but not enough for an outright majority. Congress for the Republic, a secular party, came a distant second with 30 seats.

Ghannouchi looks determined to govern with secular forces while a new constitution is drawn up and elections held in a year. He began negotiations with other parties as results came out. His Renaissance party said it would not impose Islamic banking laws; would not prevent tourists wearing bikinis on the beaches; and preserve the social gains made by women. His message to Tunisians: “Tunisia is for everybody.”

These are hopeful signs in a state that has seen years of dictatorship and repression. How the emerging political order conducts itself will affect Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world to follow Tunisia with its own democratic awakening. Since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, however, things have not gone well in Egypt. The military old guard is still firmly in control. Frustrations are rising. The officer class seems reluctant to give up its political power.

Violence against Coptic Christians in early October, killing more than 20 of them, has frightened minorities in Egypt. In a most distressing incident, 17 demonstrators taking part in a peaceful protest against attacks on their churches in Upper Egypt were run over by a military vehicle. The role of Egypt’s police and armed forces has come under critical scrutiny. Human rights organizations have demanded an independent judicial inquiry into the violence instead of the military or government prosecutor.

The influence of radical Islamists in the military and police forces is worrying. The prospect of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood coming to power in a future election makes the Obama administration nervous. However, it would be mistaken to equate the more extremist and criminal elements in Egyptian society with the Brotherhood, which has been keen to emphasize a moderate image of Islam in recent years.

For the United States and its allies to react against the Muslim Brotherhood would run the risk of further inflaming the anti-West feeling in the Arab world. Any such move would convince weary Egyptians that America is intervening in their country again. And to do anything in Tunisia that appears to thwart Renaissance’s victory would be a disaster. A year prior to a new constitution and elections is a long time.

To rejoice over the political process so far in Tunisia is fine. But in the light of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, the Arab Spring is very fragile indeed.

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The Killing of Osama bin Laden

History News Network (May 2, 2011)

Ten years after the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden is dead. His killing in a CIA operation in the Pakistani colonial city of Abbottabad, about thirty miles from the capital, Islamabad, brings a closure for relatives of many thousands of victims of al Qaeda violence around the world. It will be seen as ultimate justice for the man viewed as the chief perpetrator of international terrorism for two decades. The sentiment is understandable, even justified. However, there is a bigger truth. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the heart of America unleashed a global crisis. The subsequent ‘war on terror’ so polarized the world that there will be those who will mourn bin Laden’s death. It is an uncomfortable truth, but should not be overlooked. For although his physical presence may be behind us, the legend of Osama bin Laden still lives.  

The biblical expression – Those who live by the sword will die by the sword – comes to mind. On the other side of the coin is the phrase – The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The simplicity and perils of this mindset are revealed by the manner of Osama bin Laden’s death now and his creation at the outbreak of the CIA proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan three decades ago. There is no dearth of experts associated with think tanks inside the Washington Beltway who claim with confidence that the United States had no contact with bin Laden, and did not help him. These claims are often based on the logic that bin Laden was already so hostile to the West that any warm relationship with the United States was out of the question. But Mujahideen warlords like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Haqqani were hostile to Western ideology as well. Their opposition was strengthened during the time they spent in the Arab world. Yet they and the West became allies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Comments made by Britain’s ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook in an article in the Guardian newspaper are worth noting at this point (The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means, July 8, 2005). In one passage, Cook, who had earlier resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said:

Bin Laden was … a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.   

Robin Cook was a politician of immense credibility. An ex-foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons (another cabinet post) with access to classified information, his revelation after resigning would reasonably have to take precedence over other expert opinion. Cook did not live long after writing his article in the Guardian. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack barely a month later in August 2005. Had he lived, we may well have learned more from him. The purpose of my reference to the past is to make a point about the present. Hiring armed men driven by ideological zeal, and willing to fight your enemy for dollars, is a highway that goes through minefields, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or anywhere else.

The killing of bin Laden in a US special forces operation will go a long way toward assuring the reelection of President Obama in November 2012. In the short run, though, the outcome has implications for al Qaeda, Pakistan and the West, including the United States. Bin Laden’s demise has taken out America’s most recognized and resourceful enemy, who inspired those discontented enough to kill innocent people. A wealthy man in his own right, he could both finance al Qaeda activities, and attract money from other sources. Many of those channels will surely be cut. But the risk of revenge attacks is real. The ruling establishment in Pakistan has to tread carefully. Already angry by frequent American drone attacks in the tribal areas, Pakistan’s public opinion remains extremely sensitive to any US military incursion so deep inside the country. Official reaction in Islamabad is therefore brief and non-committal.

Conflicting messages are coming from Washington and Islamabad about the degree of cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some sources claim that the Pakistani authorities had no idea about the US operation. President Obama, announcing that bin Laden had been targeted and killed by American forces, nevertheless said, “It is important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped us lead to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

The episode raises many questions. For instance, could it be true that Osama bin Laden had been living in an expensive home, especially built five years ago, next to the Pakistan Military Academy a few miles from the capital city, without the authorities having a clue? Would anything similar be possible close to West Point in the United States, Sandhurst in Britain or one of the military academies in India? Were there any Pakistanis who might have advised bin Laden to move from his hideout in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt to a garrison town deep inside the country? If so, who were they?

The construction of a new mansion-style house in a colonial city is a big project and requires the planning permission, preparation and supervision. In whose name was the application made? Who managed the building project so close to the country’s premier military establishment? Was it all due to a series of monumental failures on many fronts? Or was there any involvement of Pakistan’s security agencies, or individuals serving in them, and what may have been their motive? The whole episode is shrouded in mystery. Answers to some of these questions may come in time, but nothing is straightforward in the world of spies and clandestine operations.

There exists a difficult relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI, supposedly America’s partner in the ‘war on terror’ and simultaneously close to militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In reality, the past conduct of the ISI shows that the agency has sometimes kept certain al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban figures from Washington, and handed others over to the CIA at other times. In a high-profile case, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a leading al Qaeda figure, was announced in March 2003 from a ‘safe house’ of a Pakistani military officer. The officer had family links with one of Pakistan’s religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, which supported the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, a close partner in President George W Bush’s war on terrorism.

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have described how Sheikh Mohammed was protected and moved around by the ISI until he was handed over to the United States (Chapter 4, p 52). The conduct of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in recent years suggests that while they have been willing to hand over ‘low-value’ suspects, or in many instances innocent people, to the CIA, they have withheld the most valuable individuals. These people were passed on to the Americans when there was likelihood of extracting a high price in return, or when the CIA confronted the Pakistani authorities with evidence that a wanted person was in Pakistan and the United States knew the location. Whether this was true in Osama bin Laden’s case, or whether the recent controversy over the arrest of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis after the reported deaths of two Pakistani nationals in a firefight is relevant remains a topic of speculation.

The success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden is certainly a major coup for President Obama – something his predecessor, George W Bush did not manage in nearly eight years. It will boost Obama’s popularity in the United States, and greatly improve his prospects in the November 2012 presidential election. However, it is unlikely to bring the threat of terrorism to an end, given the continuing conflicts in which the United States and allies are involved in the region. Since assuming the presidency more than two years ago, Obama has often repeated his intention to make sure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are no longer a threat to America’s security. The influence of al Qaeda seems to have declined in recent years, and the killing of bin Laden is the latest, most serious setback to the organization. Instead, the ‘Arab Spring’ is sweeping across the region. While the peaceful mass movement demanding basic freedoms appears to have achieved some success in Egypt, the ‘Arab Spring’ has to endure suppression in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Syria. The conflict in Libya is more akin to tribal warfare, with Muammar Gaddafi’s military apparently determined to crush the armed opposition which NATO supports. With bin Laden no longer on the scene, will President Obama seize the moment, refocus on the ‘Arab Spring’ and let flowers bloom?  

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