I spent May 27 through June 3 in Libya, and flew out of Tripoli airport to Cairo a day before a small Tarhouna militia came there to demonstrate against the disappearance of its leader. Despite that close call, I came back optimistic about Libya over-all. The Tarhouna demonstration was dealt with efficiently by the new Libyan army, which took control of the airport weeks ago, and there is every reason to believe that it will reopen shortly. When I flew in and out of the Tripoli airport, there were no militiamen there, just regular army and police (who have distinctive red-marked vehicles). There are also now regular flights from Cairo, e.g., to provincial cities like Misrata.
There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of subsaharan African heritage are bothered in the streets, etc., etc. The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Qaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story.
Henry Kissinger, in his recent op-ed against intervention in Syria, listed the erasure of the Libyan state as an argument against such interventions. I read the allegation with disbelief. Libya is not like Somalia! It isn’t even like Yemen. (The Libyans I talked to about Yemen sympathized with the country’s problems but were astonished to hear that some Western observers looked a their situations as similar!)
So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.
As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.
And here is a little set of carnival rides near Martyr’s Square in the capital:
Children's Rides in Tripoli, Libya, June 2012
Shopping in Tripoli
Life is pretty normal. I talked to a Libyan of African heritage who had worked in Germany 14 years and recently had returned. He said he is *much* happier in Libya, even though he is working two jobs (one of them teaching Arabic). A friend of mine is organizing a music festival in the capital. People are gearing up for the election of the National Congress, which will draft a new constitution and gradually create a new government.
Cities unhappy with the foot-dragging of the transitional national government have simply staged their own municipal elections. Benghazi just held its successfully, and Misrata did this months ago. I met the husband of a newly-minted female city council member in Benghazi; she was the number one vote-getter among the candidates that ran, and may chair the council. The municipal governments have the legitimacy of the ballot box and are beginning to address local problems.
Campaigning in Benghazi, May 2012
So if you aren’t in danger of being mugged at night in Tripoli or Benghazi, are there other problems? Sure, loads of them. While I was there the dock workers went on strike at Tripoli to complain about the poor management of the port. Then, in an oil state, money flows to municipalities rather than cities raising money through taxes, and the transitional government still isn’t very good about remitting the money. There is a human rights situation that needs to be addressed in the small town of Tawergha, the militias of which committed war crimes on behalf of Gaddafi; Tawergha has been cleared of its inhabitants, and they need to be allowed to return to their homes. And while security on the whole is fine for individuals in the big northern cities, it probably is still not entirely satisfactory for new investors bringing in expensive equipment to places like Benghazi (though BP has decided to get back into Libya). You have occasional moments of militia protest like the one yesterday at the airport in Tripoli.
But I was struck at the air of normality everywhere I went, and by the obvious comfort people had in circulating, selling and going about their lives. There are no bombings, there is no civil war, there is no serious secessionism. One man told me that the biggest change is that people are no longer afraid. They had been captive of the revolutionary committees and the secret police. And that end of political fear, the Libyans I talked to insisted, made the uncertainties of this transitional period all worthwhile.
I went to Libya expecting to find people nervous about going out, expecting to find a lot of shops shuttered, and expecting to be stopped at militia checkpoints (which was common in Beirut in the late 1970s when I lived there in the first years of the Civil War). Maybe such things exist in smaller provincial cities that I didn’t visit, like Gadames in the South. I don’t know. In the urban north, I found a society actively reconstructing itself where people clearly were going about their ordinary lives, where stores were open and people were sitting in sidewalk cafes, where there were no militiamen on the streets, no checkpoints, and where there were actually traffic cops directing traffic.
So while I wouldn’t want to minimize what difficulties remain, and while I am aware that a week on the ground won’t reveal all the society’s problems, I can say with certainty that the image found in the Western press of the place is far more negative than what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard from locals in Arabic-language conversations.
And I can say categorically that Henry Kissinger is wrong about Libya.
Friday is a traditional day of protest in the Arab world, and yesterday did not disappoint. In addition, there were some important developments in the two post-revolutionary societies of Egypt and Tunisia.
2. Thousands of Yemenis protested Friday against the continued influence of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh is said to work through his party’s cabinet ministers. He also continues to have support in the officer corps, where one of the generals is his son. Saleh had been president for life before last year. In February, his vice president ran unopposed and was elected president. But Saleh can’t let go, provoking Friday’s big demonstrations.
4. NYT says that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose Justice and Development Party dominates the new parliament, is intent on lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip. The article alleges that the Brotherhood is trying to broker a national unity government between fundamentalist Hamas and the secular Palestine Liberation Organization, in the belief that only a united front can bring about a meaningful two-state solution.
5. Tunisia’s large number of small secular and leftist parties are forming a big coalition to contest the next parliamentary elections. The Nahda or Renaissance Party, Tunisia’s fundamentalist movement, captured 42% of the seats in parliament last October and so elected the current prime minister. One problem the small leftist parties faced was that they had been allowed to function, if under severe restrictions, during the reign of dictator Zain al-Din Ben Ali. All the parties that did well in the elections had been in exile. The fractured character of the left allowed them to lose the elections decisively, even though they have a great deal of support among unions, students and urban populations.
There have been serious human rights abuses, but on a small scale compared to those of Qaddafi, and most of the population feels liberated. This is not to minimize them; the human rights situation needs to improve if the revolution is to be honored. Attempts are being made to rebuild a national army, but it will take time; in the meantime, its social peace will be a bit fragile– but that is to be expected after a revolution. Libya is nowhere near the mess that France was after its revolution in 1789, and there is nothing like a Vendee or a Terror. There hasn’t been a civil war, though there are still a few pockets of insecurity. Those hoping for bad news really haven’t had all that much considering that the country had been left with no functioning institutions after decades of personalistic Qaddafi totalitarianism.
As for those who blame the recent military coup in Mali on the civil unrest in the north of that country caused by returning Tuareg mercenaries from Libya, surely the blame should be put on Muammar Qaddafi for forming a corps of lawless Tuareg mercenaries in the first place. Qaddafi promoted militias and mercenaries and civil strife all over Africa, and it is not unexpected that some of his minions will go on being troublesome after his death. It isn’t Free Libya’s fault except if you think 6.5 million Libyans should have preferred to live under brutal tyranny in order to keep foreign Tuareg mercenaries employed and happy. Moreover, there were other ways for Mali’s officer corps to deal with the Tuareg unrest than to make a coup; the military is taking advantage of the turmoil to take power, which is also not Libya’s fault. And, it is not as if the Libyan Revolution invented a Tuareg problem for Mali. There have been two major Tuareg rebellions before.
Some people can’t forgive Libya for revolting against Qaddafi, or for taking outside help to do so, and seem to seek some Schadenfreude in Libya’s post-revolution problems. But that isn’t social or political analysis, it is just point scoring and a sort of moralistic story-telling. People who are interested in the welfare of Libyans are pulling for them.
What are the big stories in the Arab world today? A newly elected parliament is being seated, and a deposed president is leaving the country. But beyond that, the remarkable thing is that there are any political stories at all. There weren’t, a year and a half ago. The political stories of today are not about the advent of paradise, but about the politics of transitions.
It was never acceptable to assert glibly in an op-ed that things have happened “Because Arabs are… ” such and such. It has the form of a racist argument. Arabs are only united, if at all, by a common language (and even it is diverse). Things happen because “Arabs do…”, because of actions they take for reasons of their social interests, not because of what they supposedly “are.”
The new Arab world created by the people power movements of 2012 is not suddenly Sweden. No one should have expected it to be. The Arab world had been stuck in a stagnating rut, of dictatorship, family cartels, embezzlement, corruption, and stagnation. Where economic growth of 5% a year began being reported, as in Tunisia or Egypt, it was either a lie or was mostly captured by a small economic elite, the Arab 1%.
What began in some of these countries in 2011 was a transition, a transition that activists hoped would be toward regular, free and fair parliamentary elections and ways for students, workers, office workers, women, religious activists, and religious minorities to have an impact on policy. None of these things would have been possible in the least under the old regimes. There was no hope. Now there is hope but no certitude.
In Tunisia and Egypt, that transition has begun. In Yemen, less stark change is afoot, but some sort of transition seems at least to be beginning. In Libya, the dictator was overthrown but elections are still some six months off. In Syria, a popular movement is still attempting to kick off the transition. In Bahrain, the movement was crushed, but village demonstrations bravely continue.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, there have been at least some reforms to forestall the outbreak of a more vigorous movement. In the oil rich states of the Gulf, the monarchs and emirs have attempted to bribe their publics into quiescence.
The transitions may fail. They involve politics, the working of social conflict among large social groups into political speeches, elections and policies. Sometimes a democratic transition begins and stalls out. Sometimes it is incomplete (one thinks of Russia). Sometimes it remains incomplete for a long time. Sometimes dictatorship returns (Ukraine?). Sometimes longstanding democracies themselves deteriorate politically (think of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi with high levels of corruption and a form of press censorship).
The success or failure of transitions depends on many things. It helps to have a wealthy country, but perhaps only Tunisia fits the bill even a little bit in the Arab region. It helps not to have strong ethnic divisions and grievances. It helps to have a strong middle class and institutions such as labor unions and chambers of commerce. Religion is probably irrelevant as an explanatory consideration.
Those who throw up their hands over the rise of Muslim religious parties in Egypt or the continued instability in Libya are not looking at what has happened as a set of processes. If anything good came out of the uprisings of 2011 it is precisely this flux, this opening toward possibilities, this politics. Because in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya there was no politics of an ordinary sort, only secret police and massive embezzlement and arbitrary arrest and torture.
If some of the transitions don’t get off the ground or if they fail, there are concrete economic and political reasons for it. Those need to be investigated and understood. The day when bigots could say that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of a certain kind of politics has passed. But the day when we can understand in detail why their politics evolves as it does is still not here.
So here are the stories of the transitions today, the stories of politics in a region formerly beset by censorship, secret police, domestic spying, and deadening silences.
1. On Monday, the newly elected lower house of parliament met. The last elected parliament, of fall, 2010, had been almost completely dominated by members of the corrupt National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, and clearly all challengers to his regime had been excluded from winning seats by the police who counted the ballots. Public rage at a clearly phony electoral outcome fed into the uprising of Jan. 25-Feb. 11. The new parliament is dominated by Muslim religious parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood, at 47% of seats, the largest. It met with three other parties to choose the new speaker of the house, Mohammed al-Katatny, who is resigning from his position in the Muslim Brotherhood to take this post. That is, al-Katatny’s appointment was passed by the Wafd Party, which has a lot of Coptic Christians and secular Muslims in it, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, as well as the Salafi Nur Party (the second-biggest). Nur and the Wafd will supply the two deputy speakers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to become a central actor in Egyptian society and politics for many decades, so its dominance of this parliament is historic. As AP points out, they are avoiding triumphalism or extreme policies because they don’t want to provoke the kind of social conflict that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s after a Muslim religious party came to power at the polls there but was deposed by military intervention. Some 150,000 persons are said to have died in that fighting.
2. Thousands of political prisoners have been released in Tunisia, a year after dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali was overthrown. In addition, 122 prisoners on death row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by President Moncef al-Marzouqi, a human rights activist who had been exiled to France by his predecessor. He has pledged to work to abolish capital punishment.
3. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen for Oman on his way to the United States for medical treatment. (He had been wounded in a bombing in summer, 2011). Before he departed, he gave a speech asking the people to pardon him for any mistakes committed during his three decades of rule. Saleh’s opponents have opposed the immunity from prosecution granted him by the plan of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He had said that he turned power over to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, however, complained that Saleh continued to interfere in the political process. On Sunday, Saleh is said to have finally relinquished all prerogatives to Hadi. Saleh says that he will return in February, as head of the General People’s Congress Party, which will contest the presidential election scheduled for that month. Hadi will be the standard bearer for the ruling party.
The Arabic press reports that on Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators came out at Change Square in Sanaa to demand that Saleh be tried for crimes he committed in the course of trying to put down the rallies of winter-spring, 2011.
4. Libya’s Transitional National Council is facing protests from activists in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. That city was crucial to the movement that overthrew Qaddafi, but its residents say that they are the victims of neglect by the transitional government, which has a lot of former regime officials in it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, transitional prime ministers had to resign under pressure from democratic activists not satisfied with how much continuity there was from the old regime.
5. On Sunday, the Arab League called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and to allow a government of national unity to guide the country to a new system. This plan sounds very much like the one adopted (or partially adopted) in Yemen. Al-Assad angrily rejected the suggestion as undue interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
It isn’t surprising that the Baath government castigated the Arab League for interfering. What is amazing is that the Arab League is attempting to suggest a way forward for Syria, out of its crises and gridlock. For decades the Arab League was a cypher. But under Secretary-General Nabil Alaraby, it has become an international organization of some importance. It called for the intervention against Qaddafi in Libya. Al-Assad has blown it off, treating it as if it was still divided and toothless, as in the past. He may be making a mistake. His strong alliance with Iran and the unsavory sight of all those sniping attacks on his own civilians has turned a lot of the Arab League against him.
1. The upheavals of 2011 were provoked by the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq Bzzt! Wrong answer. None of the young people who made this year’s revolutions ever pointed to Iraq as an inspiration. The only time Iraq was even brought up in their tweets was as a negative example (“let’s not let ourselves be divided by sectarianism, since that is what the Americans did in Iraq.”) Americans are so full of self-admiration that they cannot see Iraq as it is, and as it is perceived in the Arab world. Iraq is not a shining city on a hill for them. It is a violent place riddled with sectarian hatred, manipulated by the United States, and suffering from poor governance and dysfunctional politics. I did interviewing with activists last summer in Tunisia and Egypt. The youth do not want to be like Iraq! They want to be like Turkey, or, now, Tunisia.
2. President Obama was wrong to ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. This position has been taken by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It is a crazy thing to say. Mubarak could not have stayed in power, with nearly a million people in the streets and order breaking down in the country. If anything Obama was far too slow to act, and there was danger of Egypt turning seriously anti-American if he had not stepped in when he did. Trying to keep a dictator in power who has worn out his welcome is always a big mistake on the part of a great power, as was seen in the case of the shah of Iran.
3. Muslim radicalism benefited from the revolutions in the Arab world. So far, at least, the beneficiaries of the upheavals have been both secular, left-leaning dissidents and Muslim religious parties. Neither is violent. In Tunisia, the new president, Moncef Marzouki, is a staunch secularist. The al-Nahda (Ennahda) religious party got about 40 percent of the seats in parliament. But neither sort of movement is radical or violent. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now peaceful and talks moderately, and is attacked for it by the radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. Muslim radicals have not been able to take advantage of these largely peaceful movements in the way they could of George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, which really did fuel the spread of violent extremism. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen argues that if democracy can be achieved in the Arab world, it will finish off violent extremism, which only flourishes under dictatorship.
4. Muslim religious groups spear-headed the revolutions. This allegation is made by Iran from one side and Western conservatives from the other. It is for the most part incorrect. Leftists, secularists, workers and students made the revolutions. The Muslim forces had often been devastated by government persecution and were weak (Tunisia) or had been made a junior partner in governance and were reluctant to risk entirely losing that position (Egypt). In Egypt, the revolutionaries are referred to in Arabic as the thuwar, and they are contrasted to the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces. In Egypt, it is these secularists and leftista who are are still calling for demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The most effective revolutionaries in Libya, the Berbers of the Western Mountain region and the urban street fighters of Misrata, were the least fundamentalist in orientation. While the Muslim religious parties may be good at organizing to win elections and so are perhaps the main beneficiaries of the revolutions politically, they did not make the revolutions themselves.
5. The uprising in Bahrain was merely a manifestation of sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite. The protesters in Bahrain included reformist Sunni Muslims. And the conservative forces pressuring the king to crack down on the crowds included the country’s great merchant families which comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. The struggle in these islands, like that elsewhere in the Arab world, was over authoritarian forms of government versus popular democracy, accountability and transparency. The king’s constitution allows him to over-rule both houses of parliament, allows him to appoint the upper house, and allows it to over-rule the lower house. The Shiite protesters were upset that these arrangements, along with gerrymandering that reduced Shiite representation, preventing the majority from asserting itself (Shiites are about 58% of the population). But the discourse was about constitutional monarchy, not about Shiite rule or an Iran-style Shiite theocracy, with some small exceptions.
6. Iran was behind the uprising in Bahrain. There is no good evidence for this allegation, which is the basis for the Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention on behalf of the Sunni Arab monarchy. Bahrain’s Shiites are Arabs and probably a majority of them belong to the conservative Akhbari school of jurisprudence, which rejects ayatollahs in favor of the ability of laypeople to interpret the law for themselves. Bahrain Shiites of the Usuli school, prevalent in Iran and Iraq, are more likely to look for leadership to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, than to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Bahrain’s Shiites claim educational and workplace discrimination, and dispute a constitution and electoral system that disadvantages them. They are not agents of Iran.
7. The Arab Spring is a Western plot. This allegation was made by the Qaddafis in Libya and is currently asserted by many in Syria’s Baath Party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is quite clear that the upheavals in the Arab world came as a surprise to the G8 nations, and were mostly at least initially unwelcome. France’s minister of defense offered help with police training to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia once the demonstrations got going last year this time. The US initially signalled support for Hosni Mubarak during the rallies against him of late January. Hillary Clinton said she was sure that the Mubarak regime was “stable.” Vice President Joe Biden was constrained to deny that Mubarak was “a dictator.” Obama only saw the writing on the wall with regard to Egypt at the last minute, and was starting to be a target of protest posters in Tahrir Square. The US was reluctant to lose an ally against al-Qaeda in Yemen such as Ali Abdullah Saleh, and still has never sanctioned him for killing hundreds of innocent protesters. Washington was likewise unhappy with the uprising in Bahrain, and at most urged the king to find a compromise (the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in the capital, Manama, and so the US did not feel itself in a position to support the protesters strongly). Obama was famously reluctant to get involved in Libya. There is substantial ambivalence over the upheaval in Syria, and so far the main form of intervention is targeted financial sanctions. If there is anything that is already clear as we catch history on the run here, it is that the uprisings were spontaneous, indigenous, centered on dissatisfied youth, and that and presented the status quo Powers with unwelcome challenges.
8. The intervention of NATO in Libya was driven primarily by oil. European sanctions on Libya began being dropped in the late 1990s, and US sanctions were lifted in 2004. Western oil companies had sunk billions into the Libyan petroleum sector by 2011, and it is highly unlikely that they would have wanted to risk instability there or the advent of a new government that might not honor their bids. The oil majors suffered substantial losses because of the loss of Libyan production last spring and summer. The conservative government of David Cameron in the UK and that of Nicola Sarkozy in France allegedly feared that if Qaddafi were allowed to crush the Libyan reformers by main force, he might drive them into the arms of al-Qaeda, as had happened in Algeria in the early 1990s. And, they may have feared that Qaddafi would provoke a big exodus to Europe at a time when European economies are poorly situated to absorb such immigrants in large numbers. Sarkozy may have felt the need for a quick victory to bolster his position in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Cameron, as a conservative, may have sought to rehabilitate the use of military force to enforce international order, which had been tarnished in UK public opinion by the Iraq disaster. Those who say Europe would not have intervened in the absence of the petroleum factor forget the Balkans, which presented similar challenges of massive violence on Europe’s doorstep. Likewise, oil isn’t everything; Bahrain has very little, and so it cannot explain Washington’s reluctance to lambaste the monarchy there. To argue that Western Europe had interests in Libya that drove its intervention is common sense. To peg everything to oil is vulgar Marxism.
9. The Arab dictatorships now overthrown or tottering were better for women than their likely Islamist successors. The postcolonial Arab states often pursued what my friend Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies has called “state feminist” projects of female uplift. But because these policies were pursued by unpopular dictatorships, they created a male backlash. The Muslim Brotherhood’s patriarchal pushback against the upper class feminism of Suzanne Mubarak was a feature not of 2011 but of 1981-2010. The massive trend to veiling among Egyptian women took place in the past 20 years, not all of a sudden today. That is, “state feminism” often backfired because it was felt as intrusive and heavy-handed. Women’s progress was tainted, moreover, by association with hated dictatorships. Nor was Hosni Mubarak exactly Germaine Greer. Two of my Ph.D. students had their projects initially rejected by the Egyptian authorities because they included a focus on feminist issues, which were increasingly controversial in Mubarak’s dictatorship. If Tunisia and Egypt can now move to democratic systems, women will have new freedoms to organize politically and to make demands on the state. Nor can outsiders pre-define women’s issues. Their actual desires may be for social services, notably lacking under Mubarak and Ben Ali, rather than for the kinds of programs favored by the old elites. In any case, while women’s causes may face challenges from conservative Muslim forces, it is healthier for them to mobilize and debate in public than for faceless male bureaucrats to make high-handed decisions for women.
10. The Arab upheavals are an unmitigated disaster for Israel. This position has been argued by Netanyahu and others. While it is true that the Muslim religious parties coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than were Ben Ali and Mubarak, the issue is more complex than that. The Syrian National Council that is opposing the Baath Party in Syria has said that it will cease supporting Hizbullah and Hamas if it comes to power. The National Transitional Council in Libya is not anti-Israel. Moreover, you cannot gauge whether the changes are good or bad for Israel only by whether they might affect Israeli policy toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Dictatorships such as that of Mubarak were politically pathological, pursuing policies advantageous to the Israeli Right wing that were deeply unpopular with the Egyptian people. A democratic Egypt that actually represented public opinion would not necessarily be militant (no Egyptians want a return to a war footing), but it would be honest in its dealings with Tel Aviv. Israel has not been benefited by its denial of statehood to the Palestinians, by Mubarak’s corrupt collaboration in right wing policies, nor by the Syrian Baath Party’s cynical deployment of Palestine as a domestic issue. In a politically healthy Middle East, when Israel steals Palestinian land and water, it would get regional push back of a political and economic nature (as has finally started happening with regard to Turkey). That isn’t apocalyptic, it is politics. What has been wrong with Israel’s relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbors has been a lack of politics in favor of bribed sycophancy or ginned-up militancy, which has bred terrorism on the one side and arrogant hawkishness on the other. The changes in the Arab world, if they lead to more democracy, could well normalize Israel and Palestine in the region. It wouldn’t be the end of disputes, but it might be the beginning of the end of pathological politics.
Egyptian reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim observed in the late 1990s and 2000 that the Arab world was beginning to be characterized by a bizarre gryphon-like form of government, the republican monarchy. In a republic, power is supposed to be vested in the people, who are sovereign, and who can change out their leaders through elections. In a monarchy, power is vested in a hereditary monarchy.
Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad made a coup in Syria in 1970. By the late 1990s, as his health failed, he groomed his son Bashar as his successor. Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father. Initially he was thought likely to make significant reforms. But he was constrained by the powerful Jama’at al-Assad or al-Assad clan to retain the regime’s closed and authoritarian ways.
Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who had taken over Libya in 1969, was by the first decade of the 21st century grooming his son Sayf al-Islam to succeed him. Sayf did a degree at the London School of Economics and was rumored to have enlightened ideas.
Hosni Mubarak, an Air Force general, came to power in Egypt in 1981, succeeding the assassinated President Anwar El Sadat. In recent years, he groomed his son Gamal to succeed him, provoking a strong backlash from military circles (Egypt has since 1952 been a military dictatorship) and from civil society.
Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen came to power in 1978 and was positioning his billionaire son Ahmed, a military commander of the Republican Guards, as his successor.
The republican monarchy was not a quirk. It reflected the realities of political economy. From the 1990s, the Arab states were beginning to adopt Neoliberal (laissez-faire, anti-regulatory) policies after a long period of socialism. Privatizing public economic resources created enormous opportunities for graft, favoritism and nepotism. The government knew where the opportunities were for investment before the public, and state officials could tip their relatives and cronies.
There is a sense in which the great Arab upheavals of 2011 were in the first instance revolts against republican monarchy. The Arab youth who came in the streets viewed the nepotistic elites as predatory, and as pursuing policies that lined their own pockets at the expense of fostering opportunities for their publics.
When people ask if the Arab Spring has really changed or accomplished anything, this reality should be remembered. Since a whole future, in which the sons of the dictators would come to power, has now been erased from the arena of possibility, it will be easy to forget that it had ever been in the cards.
We should also consider that the very prospect of republican dynasties was one of the motivators for the youthful crowds who made the revolutions. However hopeless the political, cultural and economic scene might have been, if there had been hope of eventual change than perhaps people would have stayed home and not risked their lives to make a revolution. The very likelihood that the dynasty would just go on, and that its policies would change little, produced the anger and despair that fueled popular discontent.
This year marked the end of republican monarchy, and of its peculiar, nepotistic, form of state economy. Gamal Mubarak is in jail in Egypt. Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi is in jail in Libya. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has stepped down in favor of an unrelated prime minister, and it seems unlikely that Ahmed will be allowed to become president. Bashar al-Assad and the Assad Clan are under severe pressure and whatever happens seem likely to be weakened and to be unable to govern as dynasts into the next generation.
The end of republican monarchy is also the end of rule by a small oligarchy of persons related to or intermarried with one another. That is, the Arab 1% has begun being overthrown by the 99%. If the government and economy open up, bribes aren’t demanded for every little thing, and leaders emerge who put the interests of the country first, economic and political opportunity may be gained by the Arab millennials.
The Mubaraks put Saad Eddin Ibrahim (with whom I studied) in jail for pointing out their aspirations to republican monarchy. Gamal Mubarak is now in Saad Eddin’s old cell.
The king is dead, and lives no more in the republics.
Saif was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. At one time the most reform-minded of Qaddafi’s sons, Saif faced a moral test from February 17 when the protest movement took off. He failed it miserably, shouting “let’s go, let’s go!” as he directed airplanes, tanks and artillery units to shell the demonstrating urban crowds. It is ironic that many in the Western Left, who now are rightly outraged about college students being pepper-sprayed by police at UC Davis while peacefully demonstrating, continue to defend the criminal Qaddafis, who attacked their own protesters with munitions rather more potent than pepper spray.
Libya’s new government should stop to consider that after the horror show of Muammar Qaddafi’s death and the exhibition of his mangled body, it has a lot of critics who need to be convinced that it is capable of instituting a rule of law. Delivering Saif to the ICC would go a long way in that direction. Moreover, having him tried abroad would be better for social peace in places like Sirte, where some still idolize the former ruling family. The ICC has the resources fully to establish Saif’s guilt and that of his father and brothers, which would be good for the new Libya. I understand post-colonial sensitivities about forwarding such a matter to an outside court, but the ICC is international, and Libya is a signatory to it.
At the moment, al-Arabiya is reporting in Arabic that the people of Zintan are insisting on keeping Saif imprisoned in that town and resisting turning him over to the capital, Tripoli.
Zintanis are demanding a security portfolio on the next interim cabinet, as an acknowledgment of the key role they played in liberating the country. They fear that technocrats (some of them formerly having served Qaddafi) will marginalize the fighers and populations that actually made the revolution. But while Zintanis have a right not to be marginalized, they don’t have a right to do with Saif as they please. He should be turned over to the central government and, ideally, then delivered to the International Criminal Court.
Ironically, oil production depends in part on a perception of security and a rule of law. But bringing in the kind of money Libya could earn at nearly $100 a barrel could in turn contribute to a return to security and prosperity, as the government (which owns the petroleum) gains the ability to pay the bureaucracy and fledgling new army. For the time being, the refineries are being guarded by militiamen like those from Zawiya, but Libyans want them integrated into a national army, which will require resources as well as moral authority on the part of the NTC.
To get back to normal, Libya needs investment and trade, the prospects for which will be strengthened if it is perceived as a country where the rule of law prevails. Libyans would be doing themselves a huge favor to avoid the kind of fiasco that attended the execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which struck most observers as more vendetta than due process. Images and symbols can be important in shaping public confidence, inside the country and abroad.