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Beginning of Destruction: from Tripoli to Homs | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Civilians fleeing Basra, Iraq, March 2003. Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Washington- Majd spent three months in Damascus as street battles raged throughout his hometown, and even though the atmosphere in the capital was tranquil — disconcertingly so — he was eager to get back to his family and his studies. Finally in May 2012, the situation in Homs had sufficiently calmed to allow the university to reopen.

Majd had kept in regular contact with his parents and friends during his Damascus stay, so he knew that the fighting in Homs had been centered in the Baba Amr neighborhood south of downtown. He’d been told that the damage was extensive, but he wasn’t prepared for the reality. “We drove past it on the day I got back,” he recalled, “and — well, it was just gone. Everything was gone.

I remember thinking — trying to find something positive, you know? — Everyone should come see this. If people saw Baba Amr now, maybe it would be a lesson. They would understand how terrible war is.” The naïveté of that notion soon became obvious; within weeks of Majd’s return, the battle for Homs started up in earnest again. This time, the regime was targeting the insurgents in the Khalidiya neighborhood, and because the army’s main artillery staging ground was next to the Waer district, it meant shells passed directly over the Ibrahims’ apartment building at all hours.

“When they went overhead,” Majd said, “it was like the air was sucked away. I don’t know how else to describe it, but you felt it in your lungs. It was hard to breathe for maybe a half-­minute afterward, like all the oxygen was gone.”

The fighting in Homs raged on through the summer of 2012, with the Syrian military methodically targeting one rebel-­held neighborhood after another, their ground-troop assaults backed up by tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships. Throughout, though, the middle-­class neighborhood of Waer remained an oasis of comparative calm. Majd attributed it to Waer’s diversity; with its mixed population of Sunnis, Alawites and Christians, none of the rebel militias could truly control the enclave — and if the militias weren’t there in force, the overextended Syrian Army couldn’t be bothered.

By the autumn of 2012, that began to change. On the streets of Waer, Majd noticed more and more young men toting weapons, and of those who wore insignia, by far the most common was that of the Free Syrian Army, or F.S.A. The militiamen also took notice of Majd. Of perfect combat age at 20, he found his daily ventures to the university growing ever more stressful as the gunmen demanded to know who he was allied with or taunted him for not “joining up.”

In response to the growing tension in Waer, the Ibrahims began renting a “shelter home” — a safety measure that many of the city’s more affluent residents were adopting. By now, so many families had fled Homs that furnished apartments sat empty throughout the city. Contacting one such family that had left for Damascus, Majd’s father arranged to rent their apartment in an outlying neighborhood for use whenever trouble cropped up in Waer. At first, the Ibrahims decamped to their shelter home only occasionally, but by early 2013 their flights had increased in frequency to two or three times a week. Their greatest concern was for the safety of their eldest son at the hands of the militias.

“Most of them were just guys from the neighborhood who’d managed to get their hands on some guns,” Majd explained. “I knew a lot of them — I’d grown up with them — so that was good. But more and more were coming in from the outside, and those guys were tough. A lot of them were survivors of the battles in Baba Amr and Khalidiya. They were suspicious of everyone, and you just never knew what they were going to do.”

Adding another unsettling element to the mix, a lot of the fighters were on drugs, habitually popping an amphetamine called Captagon that could keep them alert for days, counteracted by an anti-­anxiety drug called Zolam to bring them down.

Of all the various armed groups that had pitched up in Waer — and many were little more than neighborhood self-­defense committees — the Free Syrian Army spurred a particular disdain in Majd. While many in American foreign-­policy circles were professing to see secular progressives who, if supported, might lead Syria to democracy, Majd saw only a bunch of opportunists and cowards.

“At least the guys in the Islamist groups had some beliefs and discipline,” he said, “but most of the F.S.A. in Waer were just young guys who wanted to walk around with guns and scare people. And the funny thing about that is they were the ones who scared very easily. If another group came into their area, they would just turn around and join that group.”

One day, Majd came upon a young F.S.A. commander he’d come to know quite well, an incessant chain-­smoker, sitting dejectedly and cigarette-­less. When Majd asked why he wasn’t smoking, the militiaman explained that he wasn’t F.S.A. anymore. His unit had been taken over by an Islamic group that had decreed smoking was haram, or forbidden.

In his quest to learn the fate of his best friend, Majdi had stumbled upon a tragedy of far greater dimension. Every side in the Libyan revolution, it seemed, had taken turns killing off the air force cadets. As in Jalal’s case, the Qaddafi forces had used some as bait against the rebels, but they had also executed others for simply trying to go home. In turn, the rebels, after killing many cadets on the battlefield, had executed countless more as “regime loyalists” in the flush of victory. In early 2012, scores of cadets who had survived this collective bloodletting were being held in revolutionary prisons, while many more were living in hiding. Of his approximately 580 colleagues at the Misurata air force academy, Majdi estimates that between 150 and 200 were killed during the war and its immediate aftermath.

“And we were just students,” he said. “That’s all we were. Both sides used us. Both sides slaughtered us.”

Despite all this, Majdi was initially very optimistic about the future in post-­revolutionary Libya; the country had oil, smart people and, after the 42-year reign of Col. Muammar el-­Qaddafi, the will for a better life. In his view, the first great misstep was when the interim government in Tripoli, the Transitional National Council, announced that it would pay stipends to all those who had fought against the Qaddafi regime.

Within weeks, the number of “revolutionaries” — approximately 20,000 by the most generous estimate — had mushroomed to some 250,000. Worse, the structure of the compensation, acquiesced to by Western governments allied with the transitional council, created an incentive for new armed groups not just to form but to remain independent of any central command, the better to demand their own share of the compensation pie.

Already by the close of 2012, Libyan militias — some composed of true revolutionary veterans, others no more than tribal or criminal gangs — had begun carving the country into rival fiefs, their ability to do so bankrolled by the very central government that they were undermining. That instability was made painfully clear to the Obama administration when the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi was attacked in September 2012, leading to the deaths of Ambassador J.Christopher Stevens and three others. But for Majdi, final disillusionment took a more personal form. In the autumn of 2012, he received his “diploma” from the air force academy, announcing that he had successfully completed all the requirements for a degree in communication engineering.

“I hadn’t completed anything,” he said. “There had been no classes for a year and a half, so this paper was absolutely meaningless. But this was the new Libya: Everything was just lies and corruption. And maybe I felt it more because of what I had gone through, all my friends at the academy who had been killed, but I just couldn’t accept that. ‘Here, take this paper. No one has to know. Call yourself an engineer.’ Maybe others felt it in a different way, or they think of it more in political terms, but it was when I received my diploma that I saw the revolution had been betrayed, that Libya was a failed state.”

Majdi faced a stark choice: He could use his sham diploma to land some inconsequential government job, or he could start over. The next year, he enrolled in Misurata University to study engineering. Around the time he started back at school, Majdi also became involved with an environmental group based in Tripoli called Tree Lovers.

He was so inspired by its work that he helped start a Misurata branch. While both money and supplies are tight, Majdi and other volunteers have planted flowers and shrubs along many of the city’s dusty median strips and sought to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the very little vegetation Libya possesses. “The desert is spreading in lots of places in Libya,” he said, “and the only way to stop that is with trees.”

But there may have been a more personal impulse at work on Majdi. One of the more intriguing phenomena observed among ex-­soldiers most everywhere is a desire for solitude, to be out in nature, and when I visited him in Misurata, Majdi was eager to show me the forest that he and his fellow conservationists tended. On an early morning, we drove out of Misurata for the farm fields and small villages at its southern outskirts.

Majdi’s “forest” proved to be little more than a few rows of scraggly pines set beside a farm road, with trash strewn about from careless picnickers, but he was very proud of it. Stepping around the garbage, he strolled among the trees and breathed in deeply of the pine scent with a satisfied smile.

For Laila Soueif, the news of May 28, 2012, couldn’t have been worse. That afternoon, Egypt’s national election commission announced the names of the two men who would compete in a runoff to become the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history. There had been 13 candidates, and the only one certain to advance was Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the one party that had unified enough Islamist voters to form a meaningful voting bloc. Against him, Laila was ready to support any of the others — save one. That was Ahmed Shafik, Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister. That afternoon, it was announced that the runoff contenders were Morsi and Shafik.

“So what to do?” Laila asked rhetorically. “Morsi was completely unacceptable, but now it was him or Shafik, so we were stuck. Well, never Shafik — that meant a return to the Mubarak era — so. …”

In just this way, Laila Soueif, the stalwart feminist and leftist, found herself backing the election of a man who advocated returning Egypt to traditional Islamic values. Many other Egyptians were aghast at the choice given to them; in the June runoff, Morsi barely squeaked in with 51.7 percent of the vote.

In his inaugural speech on June 30, Morsi promised that “in the new Egypt, the president will be an employee, a servant to the people.” But a servant to the deep state may have been more accurate. Just days before the new president assumed office, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, the military junta that had ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow, transferred most presidential powers to the military.

That followed a decree by the Supreme Constitutional Court, a holdover from the Mubarak era, that dissolved a sitting Parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties. On the day he assumed office, then, Morsi was barely more than a figurehead, the public face to a democracy already gutted.

Morsi tried mightily to claw back the authority taken from his office. Ignoring the fiat of the Supreme Constitutional Court, he ordered the dissolved Islamist-­dominated Parliament reinstated. Even more boldly, he dismissed the senior military leadership, including the powerful defense minister. In his place, Morsi promoted his own man, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who had lectured Ahmed Seif during his 2011 detention.

But then Morsi overreached — badly. In October 2012, he tried to expand the powers of the presidency by decree, a move that alarmed both the deep state and the secular opposition, already growing increasingly fearful of creeping Islamization. Morsi swiftly reeled back some of the more controversial planks in his decree, but the damage was done; in a new round of protests across Egypt, the president was denounced for trying to become a new “pharaoh” or “ayatollah.”

And here was the opening the deep state seemed to have been waiting for, the chance to reopen the traditional schism that existed between its Islamist and secular opponents. For decades, the Egyptian generals had held up the Islamists — and most particularly the Muslim Brotherhood — as the greatest threat to the modern secular state and naturally positioned themselves as the guardians against them.

This strategy had broken down during the heady days of revolution, with Islamists and progressives alike turning against the generals, but Ahmed Seif had seen how easily it could be resurrected. At a meeting of human rights activists organized by Amnesty International the year before, when Egypt was still under the control of the SCAF generals, one attendee after another expressed concern about the possibility of an Islamist electoral victory.

As Scott Long, an activist who was at the meeting, recalled on his personal blog, the normally soft-­spoken Ahmed finally slapped his hand against the conference table. “I will not accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone, will tell me that I need to tolerate a military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people,” he said. “I will not accept such false choices.”

Now, with Morsi’s overreach as president, that “false choice” was becoming increasingly stark.

“It was very clear what the state was doing,” Laila said. “First, block everything that Morsi tries to do, so that nothing gets done. ‘He’s a failed president.’ But second, feed the fears about him. That was easy to do, because the propaganda against the Muslim Brotherhood — ‘They’re terrorists’ — went back 50 years,” and the propaganda had at least some basis in reality: In the 1990s, factions of the Muslim Brotherhood had formed alliances with actual terrorists groups.

By the spring of 2013, Egypt was becoming rapidly polarized between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood followers and nearly everyone else. Perversely, many of the same young demonstrators who took to the streets in 2011 to demand democracy were now calling for Morsi’s overthrow. Even more perversely, they looked to the one state institution capable of carrying that out: the Egyptian military.

This wasn’t simply a case of national amnesia. One of the more curious aspects of Egyptian society has been a longstanding reverence for its military, a tradition inculcated in Egyptian students from primary school. As a result, even during Mubarak’s era, many Egyptians regarded the military as somehow apart from the venal dictatorship it upheld.

Nevermind that the army was, in fact, a major beneficiary of that corrupt system — the Egyptian military owned construction companies, engineering firms, even a pasta factory — what a lot of those who took to the streets in anti-­Morsi demonstrations in 2013 recalled was that the army had been instrumental in finally toppling Mubarak two years before. If the guardians of the nation had acted to overthrow one dictator, why not a second one in the making?

“You could see what was about to happen,” Laila said. “Yes, Morsi was a disaster, he had to go, but to invite in the military was worse. But so many people I knew, even people who had been in Tahrir, this is what they wanted.”

On June 30, 2013, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, huge demonstrations took place throughout Egypt, with protesters demanding that he step down. They were met in the streets by counter­demonstrations of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters. All but invisible between these two great factions was a small group of protesters advocating a third path. It included Laila Soueif and her daughter, Mona.

“We gathered in one corner near Tahrir,” Mona recalled with a rueful laugh, “and chanted, ‘Not Morsi, and not the army.’ People going by gave us these confused looks, like we were all crazy, and I’m sure we kind of seemed that way.”

It was at this critical juncture that the defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, until then regarded as a bland functionary, finally stepped from the shadows. On July 1, the general delivered an ultimatum to the man who had appointed him, giving Morsi 48 hours “to meet the demands of the people” or the army would step in to restore order. Pointing out that he was the elected head of state, the president defiantly dismissed the threat.

“Morsi made two great mistakes,” Laila said. “First, he thought the army wouldn’t move against him without the approval of the Americans. He didn’t realize the generals didn’t care about the Americans anymore. Second, he trusted Sisi.”

True to his word, on July 3, Sisi overthrew the Egyptian government. He also annulled the Constitution, arrested Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders and shut down four television stations. Within days, he announced the formation of an interim “transitional” government, one composed of military officers and Mubarak-­era apparatchiks, but all Egyptians knew that the real authority now lay with Sisi.

It was on the streets of Egypt where the face of the new regime was most nakedly revealed. In the days after Sisi took power, clashes between his supporters and those of the ousted president turned increasingly violent, with the police and the military making very clear whose side they were on. On July 8, security forces fired on Morsi loyalists gathered in central Cairo, killing at least 51. That episode set the stage for far worse.

On the afternoon of Aug. 14, security forces moved in to Cairo’s Rabaa Square with orders to disperse the several thousand Morsi holdout supporters who had been camped there during the previous month. By the most reliable estimates, at least 800 and perhaps more than 1,000 protesters were killed in the ensuing massacre. In an obscene parody of the 2011 revolution, hundreds took to Cairo’s streets over the following days to praise the army for its actions.

For Laila Soueif, there was to be another, far more personal indication that the new Egyptian regime was different from those that had come before.

Laila’s son, Alaa, bore the dubious distinction of having been arrested by all three Egyptian governments that preceded Sisi’s takeover: those of Mubarak, SCAF and Morsi. In 2006, he spent 45 days in jail for joining a demonstration calling for greater judicial independence. During the SCAF administration, he did a two-month stint in detention for “inciting violence.” He fared better under Morsi, if only because the judges, Mubarak-­era holdovers, detested the new president; his March 2013 charge of “inciting aggression” was summarily dismissed, while his conviction for arson resulted in a one-year suspended sentence.

Given this track record, it was probably just a matter of time before Alaa was picked up by the new Egyptian regime. That occurred on Nov. 28, 2013, when he was arrested on charges of inciting violence and, in a nice Orwellian touch, protesting an anti-­protest law enacted just four days earlier. That note of black humor aside, under the rule of Sisi, matters were to play out very differently for Laila’s son from the way they had in the past.

One of the more baffling features of the Syrian civil war has been the fantastic tangle of tacit cease-fires or temporary alliances that are often forged between various militias and the regime, or even with just a local army commander. These can take any permutation imaginable — radical Islamists teaming up with an Alawite shabiha gang, for example — and they pose a horrifying puzzle to anyone trying to navigate the battlefield, for it means that no one is necessarily who they seem, that death can come from anywhere.

But this pattern of secret deal-­making also served to long inoculate the Waer district from the scorched-­earth tactics the Assad regime was employing elsewhere in Homs because, at any given time, at least some of the myriad rebel militias roaming the neighborhood were apt to be in secret concord with the state.

That dynamic ended in early May 2013. In a colossal misstep, the Free Syrian Army had recently moved back into the devastated Baba Amr neighborhood, and there had been surrounded and slaughtered. Those who managed to escape the regime’s cordon made for Waer and took near total control of the enclave. Sure enough, Syrian army artillery shells soon began raining down on Majd’s neighborhood. While the scale of shelling was nothing like what befell Baba Amr or Khalidiya, it was enough to keep the Ibrahim family in their fourth-floor apartment, forever trying to guess where safety lay.

“You just never knew what to do,” Majd explained. “Is it better here or in the shelter home? And if it’s safer there, how dangerous is it to try to get there?”

As bizarre as it might seem, one reason the Ibrahims stayed on in Homs despite the ever-­worsening situation was that Majd’s finals were coming up at the university. Their insistence on his finishing was not some homage to the value of higher education; under Syrian law, college students were exempt from conscription, so as long as Majd stayed in school, he was safe from being drafted. Once he took his exams at the end of July, his parents decided, they would reassess the situation and decide what came next.

That gamble nearly led to disaster. On the afternoon of July 5, Majd was talking with friends on a Waer street when a white station wagon pulled up and three young F.S.A. fighters with Kalashnikovs jumped out. Grabbing Majd, they dragged him into the car where, blindfolded, he was driven to their nearby base.

“I thought it was a joke at the beginning,” Majd said. “But they knew my name, my age, what I was studying in the university. They wanted me, not anyone else.”

For the next few hours, Majd’s captors insisted that he admit to being a regime spy, meeting protestations of innocence with kicks and punches. Finally, he was forced to his knees, and an F.S.A. man put a large knife to his throat. Another aimed a Kalashnikov at his head.

“Well, this is the standard way they execute,” Majd said softly, “so I knew this was about to happen to me. They wanted to kill me very badly.”

In prelude to his execution, however, the chief interrogator thought to look through Majd’s cellphone. With each phone number and photograph he flipped to, he demanded that Majd finally give up the identity of his “controller.” The 20-year-old’s continued professions of innocence brought more kicks, more punches. The interrogator came to the stored photograph of one young man in particular and stopped.

“Why do you have this guy’s photo?” he asked.

“Because he’s my best friend,” Majd replied.

The F.S.A. commander slowly turned to his captive. “We will call him.”

The commander left the room, and for a long time Majd remained on his knees, the knife to his throat and the gun to his head. Quite unbeknown to Majd, his best friend was also an acquaintance of the F.S.A. commander, and he came to the base to assure the militiaman that Majd Ibrahim was no regime spy. Majd learned this only when the commander returned to the interrogation room and told him he would be set free.

“So that is what saved my life,” Majd said, “that photograph.”

During the drive back to Waer, the F.S.A. commander started a long sales pitch on why Majd should quit the university and take up arms against the regime. Majd said he would think about it.

When he arrived at the spot where he had been picked up earlier that day, his parents and friends were waiting for him. The next morning, July 6, the Ibrahim family left for their shelter home, never to return to the Waer neighborhood where Majd had lived his entire life. It was his 21st birthday.

The New York Times