Monthly Archives: March 2011

With the World Watching, a Pot Boils

In a previous, very long blog entry I chronicled the events of the first 5 days following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, a very large nuclear facility on the Pacific coast of rural Fukushima Prefecture, about 155 miles north by northeast of Tokyo.  The title metaphor metaphor exactly captures my thoughts as Japan braces for a worst-case outcome at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant: Partial meltdowns at multiple nuclear reactors, at least 2 of which have breached containment structures.  These developments occurred in the strangest manner possible–at a mostly well-designed (though significantly early-generation) and fully-staffed nuclear power plant that survived a magnitude-9.0 earthquake intact, where the reactors automatically powered down 2 weeks ago and the nuclear chain reaction has long-since ceased completely, where some of the best nuclear scientists in the World were readily-available and many of them were likely obsessing over this problem, where the whole World was watching and where the irony has already been acknowledged that Japan is the nation where the people have the deepest fears of nuclear catastrophe.

This is the setting for might still be the first textbook full-core nuclear meltdown in the World.  For want of water on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, as many as 3 nuclear reactor cores may be heating up into a pile of highly-radioactive slag, melting through their zirconium alloy casings at a temperature of about 2,200 degrees Celsius and plummeting in a molten heap at the base of the reactor’s inner containment structure–still heating further.  The worst-possible outcome would be this: If the uranium core at any of these 3 reactors melts through the hardened steel and concrete of that structure, it will burn its way into the Earth, bubbling down until it reaches the water table.  At that point the superheated water will blast back up through that hole in the Earth as if through the barrel of a rifle, scattering the entire disintegrated nuclear fuel mass into the atmosphere, to be borne where the wind will take it.  In theory the steel inner containment structure of these reactors should prevent the overheating fuel rods from melting through the slab of the reactor like that, but this is now a problem of applied engineering where all of the relevant information about the status of the containment structure and the reactor cores isn’t currently-known.

In any case this multiple meltdown happened in Japan, over the course of several days, with the World watching and with first 800, then a very-dedicated plant crew of 50 risking their lives to prevent it.  Nuclear catastrophe was an explicit fear in the Japanese popular consciousness long before it became a source of fearful speculation among many Americans.  Japanese filmmakers gave us Godzilla as a means of embodying and narrating the destruction caused by nuclear weapons without explicitly ascribing blame to the country that wielded first an atomic (Hiroshima) and then a nuclear (Nagasaki) bomb against them.  2 of the 8 dreams recounted in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams were intense nightmares about nuclear apocalypse.  The latter of these is of an unspecified origin, but the former, “Mount Fuji in Red,” is explicitly a nightmare of nuclear meltdown.  (It ends badly-with the great director hopelessly swatting at a large oncoming cloud of vaporized plutonium.)  Japan long-ago declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone, and only uses nuclear power because its natural resource endowments are so small that it had to depend upon technical mastery and efficiency to drive its manufacturing powerhouse.

The relationship between nuclear power plant operators and regulators in Japan has come in for pointed criticism in the past for being too cozy, and both TEPCO and the Japanese government have been criticized at different points for not taking every precaution in estimating the danger posed to surrounding communities during this unfolding nuclear crisis.  Still, no one has denied that both the power utility and the government take the problem at Fukushima I completely seriously and are working around the clock to get that plant under control.  And while assisting officials of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission have voiced disagreements about the amount of attention the Japanese have given to cooling the plutonium-hybrid Reactor No. 3 while overheating spent fuel rods at Reactor No. 4 remain exposed to the air, there is no denying that plant workers have been working around the clock in sometimes-dangerous conditions.  So, how could the condition of 3 nuclear reactors get so completely out-of-hand?

The answer lies in a long succession of choices that may appear stupid in retrospect but which probably could not have been anticipated.  It’s ironic that the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck some distance off the eastern Honshu apparently caused no direct damage to Fukushima I, because the trouble started when 3 operational reactors there all successfully powered-down automatically in response to the strength of the quake.  3 specific events seem to have been the cause of the 2nd-worst incident in the history of nuclear power:

1.) Fukushima I’s automatic power-down at Reactors 1-3 removed primary power from their coolant systems.

2.) The earthquake destroyed some of the transmission towers that can bring electricity to the plant after a power-down, thus cutting off the coolant system’s primary backup.

3.) The tsunami destroyed the gas generators that provided secondary backup power to the coolant system.

With these 3 developments occurring over an hour or so 2 weeks ago, everything that has happened at Fukushima I has followed as a matter of course.  The odds of a dangerous malfunction at a nuclear power plant are very low, but to the Liberal Ironist–until about 2 Saturdays ago an unabashed defender of the potential of nuclear power–that sounds like another way of saying we are playing a game-of-chance.  We will have to play this game of chance not only with enriched uranium and plutonium nuclear fuel rods in use at nuclear power plants, but with spent nuclear fuel rods for the same reason.  We nearly lost this game of chance at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant back in 1979, and the Soviets lost this game most-famously at Chernobyl in 1986.  There have actually been several reported low-level civilian nuclear accidents every decade since the 1950s; for perspective, note that Soviet authorities initially tried to keep Chernobyl a secret.  Since we are already committed to play this game-of-chance with all the spent nuclear fuel we have yet to sequester somewhere for tens of thousands of years, we should ask ourselves now: How many times and in how many places do we want to play such an easy-odds but high-stakes game-of-chance, every day?

Or maybe we should be asking the Japanese, the people who take nuclear catastrophe as seriously as any and who now face a triple meltdown 155 miles away from the largest metropolitan area on Earth.  This is what those “long odds of a disaster” look like–this.  If this pessimism about nuclear power sounds too alarmist, the Liberal Ironist will explain himself in upcoming post.  Spoiler: You can have a safe nuclear power plant, but this requires a high level of state centralization for their construction and proper maintenance–and the expense will be so high that the paper efficiency of nuclear power will turn out to be an unreality.  Bite those 2 bullets (and thereby completely repudiate electricity deregulation for nuclear power), and the Nuclear Renaissance might still happen.


The President’s Efforts to Dodge Criticism on Libyan Intervention Have Earned Him Criticism

By Wednesday, February 23rd, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had already admitted he considered reports that over 1,000 had been killed in 1 week of protests in Libya credible.  3 days before, a military mutiny delivered Benghazi to the protesters, breaking Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s grip on that city–permanently, it now appears.  The revolt in Libyas’s 2nd-largest city, a traumatized and relatively-impoverished place the size of San Francisco, simultaneously raised the prospect of a mounting humanitarian crisis and offered a gift: Here was a movement–diverse and politically-fractious though it was–committed to the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  In a previous blog entry I sought to explain the connection between Colonel Gaddafi’s basic character and his actions.  I have been in favor of a no-fly zone to neutralize Loyalist air power since the Benghazi mutiny.  Now this operation seems to have come only in response to a dramatic reversal of Rebel fortunes.

It has been difficult for pilots working for Gaddafi to defect to the Rebels; 2 fighter pilots defected and landed in Malta in the first week of the uprising in late-February; 2 pilots later ejected from their planes rather than bomb Benghazi, allowing the planes to crash in the desert.  Many pilots carried out glaringly-obtuse bombing operations against Rebel fighters as they advanced first south, then west from Benghazi.  The weird inability of Gaddafi’s pilots to hit Rebel formations on the highway in the desert led to 3 different explanations:

1.) Gaddafi wanted to scare rather than kill the Rebels (which is implausible considering Gaddafi Loyalists have killed as many as 1,500 Rebels by now).

2.) Many of Gaddafi’s pilots are simply incompetent (which is plausible, although they did manage to destroy several captured arsenals around Benghazi).

3.) The wide bombings were the pilots’ way of aiding the rebels by stalling the counterattack.

The rebels advanced as far Bin Jawad by March 5th with the intention of moving on Sirte; this town on Libya’s north-central coast is Gaddafi’s hometown and the headquarters of Libya’s special forces.  Because of their momentum up to that time, the Rebels seem not to have considered that Gaddafi was employing a defense-in-depth strategy, writing-off certain regions of the country at least temporarily because they were remote to the bulk of his military and mercenary forces and populated by hostile tribes traditionally repressed rather than integrated into his government’s patronage scheme.  When the Rebels attempted an advance on Sirte, they fell back precipitously to their provisional headquarters in Benghazi, suffering relatively high casualties all the way.

At this point President Obama changed tack, shifting from calling Gaddafi’s repression of the Rebels “unacceptable” to acting as if he actually believed it was.  The situation, unfortunately, was now urgent; Colonel Gaddafi’s son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, claimed that “This will all be over in 48 hours,” adding on another occasion “I have just 2 words for our brothers in the east: We’re coming.”  This was a typical case of bluster by the regime, but it also reflected the Rebels’ rapidly-collapsing front.  On March 16th some Rebel forces and citizens actually fled Benghazi in anticipation of a heavy Loyalist assault; most remained, recognizing that this city was both central to the rebellion and (considering its large population) its strongest point.  The next day, Thursday, March 17th–1 week ago–the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing both the institution of a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of “all necessary means” to prevent mass killing of civilians by the Gaddafi regime.  Gaddafi’s response on our Friday morning (his Friday afternoon) was to declare an immediate ceasefire–one which was not actually enforced.  On Saturday, French Mirage fighter jets took on their first target in Libya–an armored column approaching Benghazi.  These were destroyed in a fairly-liberal but probably prudent interpretation of the Security Council mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Since that time the pressure has clearly been taken off of Benghazi, though about 30 civilians were reportedly killed in an assault on the west of the city.  Loyalist forces fell back in the west and are now trying to hold Ajdabiya.  The situation in western Libya has become serious, however, as several northwestern towns long-held by Rebel forces have been contested by Loyalists in the past few days.  Today Zintan, around 70 miles southwest of Tripoli, is under siege, and at Misurata, a medium-sized city around 120 miles east of Tripoli down the Libyan coast, the situation has become dire.  Today CNN reported that a doctor there claims 109 people have been killed and around 1,300 wounded in a callous siege there.  Misurata has been in Rebel hands, and isolated and repeatedly besieged, for a month now.

Conservative New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat reasoned that President Obama has insisted on a broadly-supported and -enforced mandate in Libya out of Liberal ideological sentiments; the Liberal Ironist thinks the President has been trying to dodge political criticism for the intervention in a post-Iraq, recently pro-opposition political climate.  This was foolish; such a tack wasn’t suggested by close but favorable support for the intervention.  The startling lack of a statement by the President on this intervention has invited critical questions.

The recent announcement of a plan to transfer control of the humanitarian operation in Libya to NATO is encouraging as an intermediate step of commitment to that operation; it may also be a political response to the President’s lack of engagement with its purposes.  President Obama’s low profile on this operation hasn’t deflected criticism; it has encouraged it.  Republican House Speaker John Boehner has demanded clarification from the President on the scope of our operations there; President Obama should have expected that his insistence of a US back-seat on this intervention going forward would have stimulated a lack of confidence in the operation rather than forestall it.  Speaker Boehner, of course, raised these objections about the lack of scope of commitment for partisan reasons; he didn’t express any such misgivings when President George W. Bush undertook a full-scale invasion and reconstruction of Iraq.  Still, the President should have wanted to address these questions on the eve of enforcement of the no-fly zone.  We should have had a statement from the Oval Office a week ago.  This is not just about cosmetics, it is an opportunity for the President to affirm that we are protecting key values of our foreign policy in preventing a massacre in Libya.  The Liberal Ironist approves of our involvement in a no-fly zone and operations against Loyalist forces on the ground to protect densely-populated Rebel enclaves in northern Libya; both in principle and as a matter of tactics the President should not look like he has committed our forces to this operation guiltily or furtively.

Egypt’s Referendum: The Revolution Goes Conservative

The 41% turnout for the referendum to amend the Egyptian constitution is the highest Egypt has had in an election in decades.  The New York Times quoted Mohamed Ahmed Attia, chairman of the Supreme Judicial Committee: “We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter.”  While just a little bit higher than the turnout we Americans can expect in a midterm Congressional election, this is nonetheless a sign of an Egyptian voting public quickening to life: Establish a clear set of issues and terms, and turnout will reflect a sense of whether, when and how people want to vote.

So, what does the outcome tell us about Egypt’s political future?  Because the voters have endorsed this constitutional committee’s package of amendments by a margin of 77.2%-22.8%, the political system can simply adopt these changes and elections will proceed as previously-scheduled in September.  The changes include shortening a presidential term for 6 years to 4, term-limiting any president to 2 terms, requiring any president to appoint a vice president, making it harder for a president to declare a state of emergency, requiring a president to be at least 40 years old, and requiring the president’s wife to be an Egyptian citizen.  The Liberal Ironist thinks that this is good because it consolidates a set of constitutional changes that will reduce executive power and because it establishes a high level of confidence about when elections will happen.  But this outcome is also a legitimate cause for concern because the referendum was a plausible show of support for the parties campaigning for or against these constitutional changes.  As the Times article on the referendum outcome notes, the only 2 political parties that endorsed a “Yes” vote on the proposed constitutional amendments were former President-for-life Hosni Mubarak‘s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Does the 77.2% turnout in favor of these amendments exaggerate support for the 2 most-conservative parties in the race?  Yes–but likely not by much.  The young activists who formed the core of the democratic movement in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria mostly opposed the referendum–and visibly so.  What we’re seeing here is that democracy in Egypt will probably benefit much more-conservative forces than the street protesters themselves.

Last night I saw a debate on al-Jazeera English between a young woman activist who voted “No” on the referendum, a young male pro-democracy blogger who voted “Yes” on the referendum, and an older man who helped form one of the upstart secular liberal parties and who also voted “No” on the referendum.  These 3 persons seemed to have very similar politics–but they disagreed in their beliefs about what was to come next for Egypt.

The young woman–and I do take it as an ill omen that the men interrupted her significantly more-often than they were interrupted in turn–was understandably skeptical of what chance new political ideas had in Egypt when their expositors had no chance to organize, but she was naive about what a longer-lasting transitional government should look like, saying only that “the people” should rule, whatever that should look like in a country where the people have had no say in their own government since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power and built a political culture around pan-Arabism and resistance.

The young blogger made a reasonable argument–one I sympathize with–that consolidating the gains of the revolution quickly and re-normalizing civilian rule was more-important than establishing a constitutional convention without clear participatory or discursive parameters, and that the lack of experience of the Egyptian people with free and fair elections and the relative inexperience of the new political parties was a less-pressing matter than having sure terms on which those elections could be conducted.  To be frank, he defended this position far less-cogently than I just did, however, and it wasn’t clear that the concerns of the other 2 speakers about the long reach of Egypt’s political old guard and the Muslim Brotherhood loomed as large to him.

Finally, the older liberal party man seemed to grasp fully the extent to which Nasser and Mubarak had broken Egypt’s civil society and most political institutions and that a longer period of military government would be the inevitable result of the loss of the referendum and a call for a constitutional convention.  However, this man in turn couldn’t bring the skeptical idealist woman activist or the complacent pragmatist male blogger around to his darker vision of serious constitutional contention in the context of what could be a full year of military rule.

The Times report on the referendum noted a significant divided between anti-amendment Cairo and Alexandria and the pro-amendment towns and rural areas.  There is reason to believe that Egypt’s rural masses are comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party.  While the power of the presidency is likely substantially-lessened with the passage of the referendum, the fact remains that the next president will likely wield reduced powers in the face of a parliament that will be less-corrupt but also significantly more-represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.  The current favorites for the next president are former IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.  (The Muslim Brotherhood–and so far as I can tell, the National Democratic Party–aren’t fielding candidates in the upcoming presidential election.)  So, Egypt’s next president will probably be much more-liberal, but he will certainly be weaker for a number of reasons.

A friend responded to a recent post about the factions invested in Egypt’s political transition with an interesting blog entry by Ellis Goldberg.  I feel her words of equity from before the referendum more-succinctly express justified optimism than my words of equity from after the referendum:

“…(P)people will also be voting out of their hopes and their fears.  Oddly enough a similar mix of hope and fear seem to be driving people on both sides of the debate.  Fear that the forces arrayed against democracy will use a period that is either too long or too short to consolidate themselves and hope that the process of building an Egyptian democracy can go forward.  The most hopeful single aspect of what is going on at the moment is that partisans of both “yes” and “no” seem to recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s arguments.”

Egypt’s constitutional referendum was a compelling show of electoral force by the provincial masses of Egypt who exhibited far more deference to the traditional political brands than to calls by activists for extensive institutional redesign.  Does the Liberal Ironist think that democracy will still be good for Egypt if it is conservative?

Yes, absolutely–just so long as it functions.

Egypt’s Referendum on Proposed Constitutional Amendments: Details and Implications

Yesterday the Egyptian people voted on the constitutional amendment proposals by a constitutional reform panel.  The constitutional reform panel was appointed by the provisional military government of the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council.  Objections were raised to the membership of the panel; the Supreme Armed Forces Council didn’t appoint a single woman to participate in these crucial debates on their country’s future.

Nonetheless, the panel debated, and while women’s issues have not received closer consideration in this amending stage, several proposed constitutional amendments mentioned in the above-cited BBC article sound like sensible reforms:

Presidential terms would be shortened from 6 to 4 years, and the president would be term-limited to no more than 2 terms;

The president would be required by law to appoint a vice president–something Mubarak didn’t do for about 30 years until in the midst of the recent protests he tried to salvage his presidency;

The president must be at least 40 years old, and his wife must be an Egyptian citizen.

But while these measures sound like commonsense reforms, it warrants mention that only the 2 best-established parties in Egypt–deposed President-for-life Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood–have explicitly-endorsed the series of proposed amendments in the recent referendum.  Absent from these measures, for example, are stronger controls on presidential power–and if the referendum passes and the constitution is amended now, this means elections will be held in September–and the pre-existing and well-organized National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood will have a big organizational advantage.

Will Egypt end up with a 2-party political system and retain a unitary executive?  Such democratic systems aren’t necessarily disastrous, as our own in the United States attests.  If the referendum is voted down, it would be one of the most-powerful demonstrations yet of the resilience and independence of the Egyptian protest movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood strongly endorses quick constitutional changes and elections, and was strangely given responsibility for operating some polling stations rather than the transitional military government; the conservative military, for its part, has focused on more-obvious institutional and personnel changes and legal reforms, and then wants to have done with it.  But if the amendment package fails at the referendum, a constitutional convention will be called, allowing radical redrawing of the Egyptian constitution but unavoidably pushing elections back beyond September.

In that case both the opportunities and the inherent uncertainties surrounding Egypt’s future would be enhanced.  There will be a more in-depth update on Egypt’s constitutional amendment referendum soon.

Egypt’s Revolution: Outlook and Factional Pitfalls

Though the end is not yet, many of the threats to Egyptian democratization appear to have been slowly defeated or coopted.  I can think of 4 visible factions thought to pose a potential threat to a democratic transition in Egypt: Mubarak’s political class, the state security police, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military which leads the transitional government.  These 4 factions have gradually but measurably receded as a threat to a transition.

The Old Guard

First, there is the old guard.  Several members of Mubarak’s party have resigned; some, such as Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, have actually been arrested by the transitional government and brought under investigation–in his case, for official corruption, not the torture he is widely-suspected of.  But Adly isn’t the only official of the Mubarak regime or his National Democratic Party to be arrested.  While the house-cleaning of the ruling party in Egypt may not be as thorough as that in Tunisia, some powerful and feared men in Egypt face jail time; the former interior minister is currently residing in an Egyptian prison.

Members of the old guard haven’t simply been arrested.  President-for-life Hosni Mubarak of course resigned on March 11th; his Vice President-for-2-weeks General Omar Suleiman resigned along with him.  General Suleiman had been extensively discussed as a legitimate transition leader, but he had disqualified himself by acting as little more than a shill for Mubarak at a time when his actions were indefensible and even somewhat defiant of common sense.  More surprising was the insistence of demonstrators that the much more reasonable-sounding Ahmed Shafiq also resign as Prime Minister, seemingly because Mubarak chose him for that position.  Shafiq resigned on March 2nd, in the face of ongoing massive protests; the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council announced this transition on its Facebook page.  What’s interesting to the Liberal Ironist about the intransigence of both Tunisian and Egyptian pro-democracy protesters is their unflagging insistence that principal figures of the old regime must step down; this appears to be motivated by an experience that dictates that corrupt regimes thrives on the presence of their personal contacts.  In fact, “subordination of the law to personal contacts” is the very definition of a corrupt regime.

The State Security Police

The hated and feared Egyptian state security police are broken.  Formal death for the organization came as new Interior Minister Mansur al-Issawi’s decision to disband them on March 15th.  But the organization suffered a blow from which it might never have recovered 2 weeks ago, when protesters rushed into state security headquarters in Cairo to stop police from shredding many volumes of documents detailing their extensive investigations into Egyptians and others.  The Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council requested the activists turn these documents over so they could be admitted as evidence in ongoing transitional justice investigations; they first copied many of them and submitted them to media, or posted them on social networking sites.

The Muslim Brotherhood

First, a word about the concern over the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound freedom to run candidates in Egyptian elections openly.  The issue isn’t necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood’s animus (which might still be a reasonable cause for concern) but whether they can sweep the initiative from a movement that they clearly don’t lead.   The 1979 Revolution in Iran was the work of numerous parties, and French political theorist Michel Foucault discovered to his astonishment that the domestic political class apparently never believed Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had a major constituency.  The result of this complacency was the swift transformation of an anti-Shah revolution into an Islamist revolution.

But such a comparison between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011 is based on a crude analogy–“So 2 impoverished Middle Eastern Muslim nations experienced a revolution against an autocratic ally of the United States; what’s the difference?”–that ignores the centrality, legitimacy and political independence of the Egyptian military and under the circumstances, belittles the protesters.  Any comparison to Iran in 1979 overlooks the absence of any Islamist remotely approaching an Ayatollah Khomeini’s stature in Egypt, far lower levels of animosity towards the United States, and an Egyptian civil society that so far has shown almost no affinity for theocracy.

The Liberal Ironist agrees that the Muslim Brotherhood is an x factor, and both the extent of poverty in Egyptian society and the lack of serious political experience outside of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council, and the Muslim Brotherhood are troubling.

The Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council

Finally, a word on the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council itself.  The military could be seen as either the most-obvious or the most-subtle threat to prospects for democracy in Egypt.  It is the most-obvious threat as, following Mubarak’s abdication on February 11th, control of the government fell to the military.  The military reserves sovereignty for the transition period, and appointed the panel responsible for proposing recommendations on constitutional amendments.  The more-subtle threat the military poses to Egypt’s democratic transition could in turn be thought of as either independent of or related to the obvious one–that is, it’s the oft-stated fact that the military is the most-respected national institution in Egypt.  I can think of 3 facts, however, that may constrain the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council to responsibly manage a democratic transition:

  1. The Egyptian military, as I’m sure you know, is the beneficiary of $1.3 billion in US military aid;
  2. The Egyptian military, I’ve heard, is a 15% stakeholder in the domestic economy (though I haven’t confirmed the exact extent of their formal holdings) and business has a lot to lose from both further upheaval and repression;
  3. The fact that protests continued in Egypt over labor rights and women’s rights even after Hosni Mubarak’s departure likely reduce the attraction to the Supreme Armed Forces Council of attempting control of the Egyptian political system directly or indirectly.  This is not to deny that the Egyptian military will remain a major and independent political interest in this country, particularly considering its substantial business interests and foreign ties, and its role as a major employer.

The political old guard, the state security police, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council: The democratic movement in Egypt succeeded in moving the first 2 and last of these factions apart from each other as they all sought cover.  This allowed the military to promote itself as being beyond politics, while consenting to or leading the charge against Mubarak’s cronies or the hated security police.  The Muslim Brotherhood likely has a major constituency but there is no evidence that it possesses either the political momentum or the singularity of purpose that would incline it or allow it to sweep up Egypt’s democratic transition.

The disharmony among Egypt’s past or prospective political elites is most promising.

At 12:45 pm, EST, a French Fighter Jet Fired the First Shot Against Gaddafi’s Ground Forces in Enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1973

Following Gaddafi’s last pathetic attempt to buy himself time with his announcement yesterday afternoon of a ceasefire that he did not honor, incredulous NATO participants nonetheless proceeded with preparations to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in order to prevent an anticipated mass killing in Rebel home cities.  Today French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced that French planes were already in Libyan airspace, their pilots acclimating themselves to the tactical situation in that country.  Just over 15 minutes ago, this advance force initiated operations against Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.  This first air strike occurred outside of Benghazi, in defense of the headquarters of the Rebels’ provisional government.  An al-Jazeera reporter characterized a French fighter jet’s night attack on Libyan Loyalist ground forces as being about as pitched as “a prize fighter taking on an average boxer while the latter was blindfolded.”  Less than half an hour later, it is confirmed that the fighter has destroyed the first target engaged under Resolution 1973.

The Security Council Votes, and the “Great Leader of the Libyan Revolution” Loses His Airspace

I’ve never been so happy to hear that the French were coming.

Just one week ago, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam (“Sword of Islam”) Gaddafi boldly threw down to foreign powers that, if they were to intervene in Libya, they would meet their match:

“The French, the Europeans, they should talk to the Libyan people…If they want to support the militia, do it. But I tell you: you are going to lose. We will win,” Saif al-Islam said. “And we are not afraid of the American fleet, NATO, France, Europe. This is our country. We are here. We will die here.”

Well, it seems that this sort of machismo (I know that technically isn’t the right word, but it gets the point across) had little effect, because shortly before 7:00 pm yesterday evening the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a no-fly zone on Libya.  In fact, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 goes farther than that, including in its mandate recourse to “all necessary measures” in order to protect Libyan civilians from the violence of the civil war erupting around them.  This represents a substantial and surprising vindication of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine of just foreign intervention.  More to the point, it is a broad-enough mandate that it might have been designed to permit broader participation in the war to advantage the Rebels over the Loyalists.  The vote was 10-0, with abstentions:

Voting in favorFrance, the United Kingdom, the United States, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Portugal, Nigeria, and South Africa.

AbstainingChina, the Russian Federation, Brazil, Germany, India

Shortly after its abstention, the German government announced that it would assist military operations to enforce the no-fly zone.

To those worried that the resolution passed too late for a no-fly zone to protect the rebels, a spokesman for the French government gave assurances that the air strikes against Libyan air defenses necessary to establish a no-fly zone could be carried-out within a few hours–indeed, by the time of this writing.  The BBC and others report that the United States will provide assistance from the rear–at least initially, and that the United Kingdom, and France are prepared to deploy quickly; Norway has committed F16s and transport aircraft.  The CBC notes that Canada is planning to deploy 6 CF-18 fighter jets to participate in enforcement of the no-fly zone–and that Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are possible participant enforcers of the no-fly zone as well.

Col. Gaddafi (or Qaddafi, or Gadafi, or Ghadafi, or Gadhafi, or Ghaddafie as may be your preference) promised on Wednesday that the civil war in Libya would be ended over the following 48 hours.  “It’s already been decided,” he said.  It’s past noon on Friday in Libya, however, and so far the Rebels still securely control their headquarters in Benghazi.  Gaddafi has been “fudging” the extent of his advance eastward, pounding rebel positions with air strikes then running tanks into an out of coastal towns in an effort to push them back towards Benghazi.  The only way he has made this rapid progress, apparently, has been by declining to consolidate his gains along the road.  Gaddafi claimed to have taken Ajdabiya, a large town south of Benghazi on the Cyrenaica coast, but rebels flatly deny this.  While Gaddafi has regained some ground, these recent and precipitous gains appear to be cosmetic.

But it’s too early to declare victory for democracy in Libya, and the jubilation in Benghazi last night on the announcement of the Security Council’s resolution is understandable but presumes their rapid implementation.  The available data, while preliminary estimates, indicate that the Rebels have lost a lot of manpower.  This Friday morning, a now-desperate Gaddafi launched another attack on the city of Misurata, east of Tripoli.  For whatever (political) reasons President Obama and the several NATO and Arab League members who intend to enforce Security Council Resolution 1973 waited this long, they aren’t good-enough.  But while the Liberal Ironist has no illusions that “it’s never too late” to protect a democratic movement, as a more-forgiving Benghazi resident said during an al-Jazeera interview before the Security Council vote yesterday, the fact remains that it’s better late than never.