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Inside the Ring: Returning to military rule

- - Wednesday, August 21, 2013

U.S. intelligence agencies watching events in Egypt say the military is preparing for long-term authoritarian rule, a setback for both pro-democracy advocates and proponents of Islamist rule under the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime.

The most significant sign of returning military rule was the announced release from prison on Wednesday of former President Hosni Mubarak. He will be under house arrest.

According to U.S. officials, the Egyptian government in July appointed several military and police officials to senior positions and re-established an internal security unit from the Mubarak era devoted to suppressing Islamist activism.

Additionally, a propaganda campaign has been underway in the current Cairo government to promote Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a presidential candidate in a future election.

The signs indicate that along with the declaration of a state of emergency, Egypt's military is taking steps to tighten control over the government at both the national and local levels.

The state of emergency was declared Aug. 14 by interim Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi, who announced it would last 30 days. U.S. officials, however, said the emergency measures are similar to the emergency declaration initiated by Mr. Mubarak that lasted for nearly 30 years.

The violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters last week followed the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in July. Mr. Morsi's ouster was preceded by mass pro-democracy demonstrations held to protest his anti-democratic Islamist policies.

The emergency decree permits warrantless searches and seizures, trials of civilians before state security courts, media censorship and limits on public assemblies and movements.

Reports from Egypt stated that 11 of 18 new governors appointed in recent days are military officers and two others are generals in the police agency.

The most significant step, however, was the re-establishment of a special unit within the Egyptian National Security Agency devoted to countering religious activism. The unit was the main body used to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups during Mr. Mubarak's rule.

The security unit was disbanded after Mr. Mubarak was ousted in the pro-democratic revolution of 2011.

U.S. officials said the fact that so far only one senior Egyptian official, Vice President for Foreign Affairs Mohammad ElBaradei, resigned in protest is an indication that the move toward military rule in Egypt has significant support in the government.

PRC defense chief visit

U.S. and Chinese media hailed this week's trip to the United States by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan as a high-level visit that portends a new step forward in military relations.

However, defense officials told Inside the Ring that Gen. Chang is little more than a figurehead within the Chinese military power structure.

The real power over the People's Liberation Army is exercised by Gen. Fan Changlong and Gen. Xu Qiliang, the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the Chinese Communist Party's ultimate power organ.

Next in line after those generals is Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff, followed by the leaders in charge of the military's political, logistics and armament departments and then the regional military commanders.

By comparison, Gen. Chang is a relatively minor functionary whose position within the Chinese system is largely ceremonial and whose office is under the State Council that is separate from the military commission, the officials said.

The Pentagon declined to release the full itinerary of the 22-member delegation.

A spokesman said only that the Chinese visited the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs and the Pentagon.

Chinese state-controlled media reported this week that Gen. Chang's visit included the "goodwill gesture" of allowing him to look inside the Alternative Command Center located at Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain, where U.S. nuclear warfare would be conducted.

The military-linked Phoenix television this week stated: "Washington has made arrangements for Chang to tour the nuclear bunker. Chang is the first Chinese defense minister to tour a nuclear bunker facility in the United States."

A Northern Command spokesman, however, denied the report.

"This past Sunday morning, Gen. Chang visited the NORAD and U.S. Northcom headquarters building here at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs," said spokesman John Cornello.

"The visit consisted of a short meeting in an unclassified conference room where the discussions focused on our mission of defense support of civil authorities and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts."

Gen. Chang and the delegation "never visited Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station where the NORAD Alternate Command Center is located," he said.

Such a visit would be illegal under restrictions imposed by Congress in the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits Chinese military visits involving "nuclear operations" and other sensitive military activities.

China's military has opposed the restrictions during earlier visits.

The restrictions were imposed after Chinese military visitors gained valuable war-fighting information in the late 1990s.

Covert op in Libya?

An Arabic language British newspaper reported earlier this month that U.S. military forces conducted a covert attack on al Qaeda facilities in northern Libya.

A "surprise attack" on al Qaeda bases in the east coast port city of Darnah was carried out by U.S. military forces, according to Al Sharq al Awsat published Aug. 12.

The newspaper quoted Libyan Defense Ministry spokesman Adil al-Barasi, who said the Tripoli government did not give permission to U.S. forces to conduct the bombing raid that may have included an offshore missile strike.

Mr. Al-Barasi said no country has the right to conduct military strikes without permission of the United Nations.

"But surely a state — such as the United States that has a very great experience in dealing with terrorism and third-world armies — would not carry out such actions haphazardly," he said.

The report quoted eyewitnesses as saying the strike took place Aug. 11 against al Qaeda supply lines in a city long-known as a base for recruiting Islamist fighters.

"Eyewitnesses told conflicting versions of a missile attack from the direction of the sea," the report said. "They said that Libyan forces moved to that site and were surprised when they saw vehicles burned and completely destroyed there. Meanwhile, conflicting reports indicated that the attack was carried out by a Libyan army plane that targeted a training position belonging to non-Libyan elements. The reports added that at least 20 people were killed as a result."

Libyan authorities declined to comment on the report. Pentagon spokesmen also had no information on the reported attack.

Since the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has a weak central government and Islamist militias, including al Qaeda-linked groups, have moved into some areas of the North African nation.

President Obama vowed last year to bring to justice the terrorists who attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

However, no action has been taken to date against anyone linked to the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stephens.