May issue 2011
Winds of Change
After the self-immolation of a humiliated fruit vendor sparked a popular uprising in Tunisia at the beginning of the year, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was quick to berate the protesters for seeking to overthrow his “brother,” Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. It may have been no more than an instance of fraternal support for a fellow autocrat, but it’s likelier that the colonel recognised the rebellion’s infectious potential and realised that the contagion would spread.
A similar statement of support for Hosni Mubarak was not forthcoming, but the events in Egypt must have confirmed his worst fears. The lesson Gaddafi evidently imbibed from events elsewhere in the Maghreb was not that he, too, must sooner or later bow to the inevitable, but that the revolting masses must be crushed with greater ruthlessness.
In Tunisia and Egypt, initial attempts to deploy the state’s repressive apparatus against largely peaceful protesters gave way soon enough to the realisation that violence by security forces was serving chiefly to galvanise opposition to the regime. Fear could no longer be relied upon as a means of coercion.
It was this loss of fear that proved fatal to the long but not-so illustrious political careers of Ben Ali and Mubarak. But Libya’s power structure differs from that of Tunisia and Egypt: the manner in which authoritarianism has been exercised in the so-called People’s Jamahiriya has always been somewhat more opaque and insidious. Hence, early expectations that the eruption in Benghazi would soon enough be echoed in Tripoli proved to be overrated.
The miscalculation extended to vital components of the regime — including senior ministers as well as Libya’s diplomatic missions at the United Nations and in the United States — who dissociated themselves from Gaddafi, under the impression that he was effectively a goner. And when Gaddafi threatened to obliterate his opponents, describing them as drug addicts and votaries of Al Qaeda, the West found its excuse for military intervention: the UN was persuaded to sanction the imposition of a no-fly zone.
The US was relatively reluctant to enter the fray, and handed over operational command to NATO as soon as it was feasible, allowing Britain and France to take the lead militarily. Fellow Middle Eastern potentates have always been wary of Gaddafi’s unpredictability, and the Arab League — still dominated by representatives of dictatorships — had few qualms about supporting the intervention, with tiny Qatar placing itself at the forefront.
Although many of Gaddafi’s Libyan opponents were keen on western military support, others appeared to realise that foreign intervention might well turn out to be a long-term liability. At the time of writing, there was already talk of a stalemate and “mission creep,” as well as debate over enforcing regime change.
US President Barack Obama, France’s electorally beleaguered Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s increasingly unpopular David Cameron all put their names last month to a newspaper article demanding Gaddafi’s departure, and Obama authorised the deployment of drones. At the same time, both the Americans and NATO insisted that there was no prospect of a ground invasion, nor was there any intention of assassinating Gaddafi.
However, with western intelligence agencies already operating in Libya, there was also talk of sending in military advisers to assist the Benghazi-based rebels. That’s always an ominous sign, given that numerous notorious Third World conflicts — most notably Vietnam — entered a deadly new phase with the induction of advisers, invariably the first step towards a deepening military involvement.
As of the last week of April, forces loyal to Gaddafi were still demonstrating their firepower, but there were simultaneously indications that hope for some sort of a negotiated settlement had not been abandoned. A particular focus of interest among elements in the West has been Gaddafi’s second eldest son, Saif Al-Islam, who is seen as a potential reformer, even though chances that the rebels would accept him as an interim compromise have steadily been diminishing.
A settlement, however, seems even more unlikely in the near future after the incidents of May 1 when foreign missions and UN buildings in Tripoli were attacked by mobs following a NATO air strike that ostensibly killed Col Gaddafi’s youngest son along with three of his grand children. The British and Italian embassies were attacked by pro-Gaddafi forces, and the UN stated all international staff were pulled out of Libya.
The colonel cannot hang in there indefinitely, but the script for his departure remained indeterminate at the time of writing — and the prospect of what would inevitably be seen as a western puppet regime in post-Gaddafi Libya, or any “liberated” parts thereof, cannot be ignored. Allowing Libyans to determine their own fate, even at the cost of Gaddafi’s opponents losing the first round, may have been the best option in the medium term. A boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign could potentially have produced more acceptable results than aerial bombardment — by those, mind you, who have displayed few compunctions about selling arms to the colonel or buying his oil.
But then, perhaps it’s precisely because Libya is a source of petroleum and a lucrative market for western armaments that the nation ultimately cannot be permitted to determine its own fate.
Despite his best efforts to ingratiate himself, Gaddafi was never considered as reliable as Mubarak. Hence the West’s — and particularly Washington’s — entertaining prevarication as the endgame played out in Cairo. The effort thenceforth has been to preserve — also in Tunisia but particularly in Egypt — as many elements as possible of the status quo ante. From the American point of view, Egypt’s armed forces, which took charge once Mubarak lost his footing (but were also crucial to sustaining his regime), are eminently more trustworthy than those of, say, Pakistan. Genuine democracy, on the other hand, is considerably more unpredictable.
Israel, whose special relationship with Egypt has been sustained since Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords, feels much the same way. For a state that prides itself on its democracy, it has demonstrated a marked reluctance to celebrate the birth of a comparable trend among its neighbours. Sure, some Israeli politicians have paid lip service to the idea of popularly determined governance in Arab states, but many others have been frank in acknowledging that the pending unfamiliarity of the surrounding political landscape fills them with dread.
This fear extends to the circumstances in Syria, whose leadership — unlike Mubarak and Ben Ali — is hardly viewed as friendly towards Israel. “Better the devil you know” appears to be the predominant attitude towards the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which was rocked last month by spreading protests that elicited a characteristically vicious response from the regime in Damascus.
Assad, who assumed power a little more than a decade ago, following the demise of his father, Hafez, was initially viewed as something of a reformist, but apart from a few cosmetic changes the structure of the dictatorship has remained more or less intact. And chances are that the scion will resist the prospect of dethronement with Gaddafi-like determination.
That does not, however, necessarily preclude the possibility that he may be gone by the time this comment appears in print. The end of his regime could jeopardise the supposed alliance between Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet the prospect of his removal fills Israeli politicians with trepidation — which betrays their underlying fear that the Arab world’s popular will could prove to be a much tougher opponent than unrepresentative rulers whose supposed devotion to the cause of Palestinian self-determination was never much more than a political strategy.
It is hardly surprising, meanwhile, that the extraordinary repression in Bahrain has elicited from the West no more than the mild reprimands that are generally reserved for Israel when it goes over the top. A Shia-majority state with an absolutist Sunni monarchy, Bahrain plays host to the US fifth fleet, and therefore doesn’t qualify as a candidate for democratisation. Once the tiny state was rocked by protests focusing on its subsequently destroyed Pearl Roundabout, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were allowed to invade it in order to preserve the status quo.
Reports have been emerging of retribution against doctors tending to wounded protesters, and against the Shia intelligentsia more generally, but neither the Arab League nor Qatar has reacted negatively. Funny, that.
Protests in Oman also received no outside support. Events in nearby Yemen, on the other hand, have at least prompted consideration of possible regime change. The government in Sanaa has gone out of its way to collaborate with the US in the so-called war against terrorism, freely permitting the Americans to take military action against opponents purportedly allied with Al Qaeda. It’s not jihadists, though, who have been protesting against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has misruled Yemen ever since its reunion 21 years ago.
Once the events in Tunisia showed signs of turning into a contagion, some Arab states — notably Jordan — were quick to enact cosmetic reforms, while Saudi Arabia sought to stave off protests by bribing its citizens. But the Custodian of the Holy Shrines presides over the most absolutist regime in the neighbourhood. King Abdullah may have no objection to Gaddafi’s removal, but he was very sorry indeed to see Mubarak go, and has provided refuge to Ben Ali — just as his country did to Idi Amin and Nawaz Sharif, among others.
It isn’t inconceivable that a reasonably fragrant democracy will bloom in the Maghreb — to the consternation of both Riyadh and Tel Aviv, to say nothing of Washington — but popular rule in the Middle East as a whole is unlikely to flower without thoroughgoing transformations in Saudi Arabia and its environs.
That may not happen this year. But it can’t be postponed forever. And the speed of the transformation is likely to be determined, to a great extent, by the fate of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention Libya and Syria.
The movements across the Middle East have at least put paid to the myth that Muslim societies are somehow allergic to democracy. Political changes won’t suffice, though. The first countries to succumb to popular pressure were those that featured youth unemployment to the extent of 30%. Changes in an economic regimen that facilitates a growing gap between rich and poor are essential both morally and in order to promote stability. And the shape of things to come will also determine the resolution — or otherwise — of the Palestinian question.
The ongoing transformation in the Arab world has been compared with both the 1848 revolutions in western Europe and the 1989 transformation in eastern Europe. Which analogy is more appropriate remains to be determined.
The future is unwritten, but the trepidation being experienced by the US and Israel — as well as the oil sheikhs to whom the prospect of genuine democracy sounds like a death knell — cannot be a bad omen.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.