It Is Not Just Libya, Arab Autocrats Fight Back

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By Paolo von Schirach

March 21, 2011

WASHINGTON– America, like everybody, has been caught by surprise and totally unprepared by The Arab Spring. And as much as it would like to steer events in the direction of peaceful transitions to democracy, the US government leverage on rapid fire political upheaval in a complicated society is modest. And if, as now, the upheavals occur simultaneously in six or seven countries, America is almost powerless.

Long term, there are many possible constructive US interventions, from student exchange programs to organised connections with different segments of society to economic investments in modernization. But all this, even assuming the vision to craft such multi-layered strategies, takes a a long, long time to bear fruits. America these days is short of cash. And it is in general not well organised to create long term strategies, especially anything that would require sustained public financial support, as most international programs in Washington are subject to constant revisions.

America is a spectator

Given all this, for the time being, America the super power is largely a spectator of rapidly unfolding events. The opportunity for Washington to use its still considerable influence to counsel old rulers in constructive ways to engage their societies came and went. The Doha speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was astonishingly accurate and prophetic. But, (no fault of hers), it came way too late. The hurricane of change about to sweep these countries waa already brewing.

Arab Spring is a mixed affair

The Arab Spring is a patchwork of reform movements, revolt and convulsions in which pre-modern issues of tribalism and religious strife are mixed with a XXI century version of old desires for representative government and freedom of expression. Somewhere, like in Tunisia and Egypt, we have seen, (so far), the affirmation of the milder and more appealing reformist versions of pro-democracy movements.

Libya is in a category of its own

Elsewhere, from Libya to Yemen, it is a bloody and confusing affair. The Libyan revolt is in category of its own because Libya has been not just under another autocrat, but under the despotic rule of a bizarre psychopath disguised as a head of state who managed to stay in power for over 42 years because of his control on a stream of cash coming from the country’s oil. Whatever the composition and the motivations of the opposition to his regime –it is a mixed lot– the case can be made that getting rid of Gaddafi should be a net plus, even though we should recognise that this is still a bet on the maturity of a Libyan society unaccustomed to democracy and restraint.

Can Gaddafi survive?

It is entirely possible that a post-Gaddafi Libya may turn into an ungovernable tribal country in which, whatever the legitimate aspirations of some, the drag of pre-modern ideas and customs may be too strong, thus preventing the establishment of a functioning, reasonably accountable new state. Still, be that as it may, it is too late now for second thoughts on Gaddafi.

In its own convoluted ways, the West decided that it did not want to see the Benghazi rebellion end in another blood bath. At the very last minute it chose to intervene militarily. At this stage in the game, whatever the policy confusion and the operational limits imposed by the UN mandate via Security Council Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, Gaddafi long term is toast.

Reinstatement in the internationally community impossible

True enough, if the West proves to be indecisive and divided, he may somehow survive the military intervention and keep fighting for his survival. But I cannot see any scenario whereby he can once again be internationally accepted as the legitimate ruler of Libya. But Gaddafi, as I said, is in a special category, (I should say special psychiatric ward), of his own. There are not going to be more western-led punitive expeditions against other repressive Arab rules because, as bad as they may be, it is hard to find another one that will match Gaddafi’s weird profile.

Elsewhere: the emergence of urban elites

Allowing for the fact that Libya is in a category of its own, the unfolding picture is that significant segments of the Arab world urban elites suddenly woke up and demanded accountable governments and a say in running them. Let’s remember that, whatever the ancient glories of the Arab civilization, for centuries these societies ignored or shunned modernity. But now, after having been mere bystanders during the XIX century industrial revolution, the XX century technological revolution and finally the unfolding information technology revolution, all at once, the Arab world –the Arab elites, I should say– woke up.

Educated, well traveled

Indeed, this spontaneous, sudden political outburst is led by the more educated and more worldly urban middle class citizens. It is not accidental that many of them speak foreign languages and have studied, worked and travelled abroad. Their children often have a western education. And therefore, in different ways, they acquired some western values, including an appetite for basic democratic principles.

The others follow

But the rest of the Arab societies are not even close. They are composed of mostly uneducated and much poorer people. These people so far have been swept by the reformist wave and decided to follow it, or at least nod to it. The main supporters of the uprisings have been largely poor and disenfranchised youth clamoring for immediate change and hopefully a better economic future.

Oligarchies could not deal with this

Confronted with this wave, the brittle, ossified ruling oligarchies could not cope, nor could they constructively engage with this unprecedented fire. The Tunisian president panicked and fled. And this totally unexpected event opened the floodgates. This almost unthinkable, quick end solution to never ending tyranny emboldened the Egyptians and the Yemenis and the people of Bahrain and the Libyans.

Western elites started cheering

The western elites looked at all this and started cheering for the pro-democracy movements that appeared, on balance, well meaning, reasonably well organized and led by earnest young people who, whatever their religious convictions, seemed to speak the very western language of freedom, democracy, elections, limited government that westerners can relate to.

Before, strong belief that were could be no palatable alternatives

Up to that point, western observers were used to think that “this is the way it is in the Middle East or North Africa” regarding Arab governments. As unpleasant as they could be, the old autocrats were deemed to be the best that these societies could produce. The only alternative, we were taught, was fanatical Islam and al-Qaeda, its military and terrorist arm. As al Qaeda is a global threat, pro-western Hosni Mubarak did not seem to be so bad.

According to the same logic, when Mouammar Gaddafi, whatever his political calculations, decided to publicly renounce his own weapons of mass destruction programs, because of his good deed he was –sort of– welcomed back into the international community; with western oil companies salivating at the prospect of juicy deals to further develop ssignificant Libyan deposits.

Democracy finally possible?

After the great outburst of this democratic awakening, the prospect of geriatric leaders swept away by a wave of peaceful, youthful enthusiasm seemed exhilarating. Democracy, totally absent from the Arab world, except for Iraq where it was introduced after a long and bloody US military occupation, now seemed not just possible but real.

Libya, Bahrain, Yemen: violent reactions

Then came Libya and reactions in Bahrain led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and reprisals in Yemen by president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The nice theoretical template of “peaceful transitions” is gone. This is going to be a messy and bloody affair that will keep the whole region in turmoil for a long time. The fact is that there are no homogeneous, developed “democratic movements” fighting entrenched autocrats.

Pro-democracy elites are very small

There is a huge cultural and often generational gap between the thin veneer of western educated urban elites and the rather primitive, ossified oligarchies used to stay in power forever, because of their monopoly of force. (Even within the Chinese Communist Party leaders retire. They no longer stay until death). In between these two extremes there are large masses of mostly young, uneducated people, with a female population generally held even further back by custom and religious beliefs. So here is the problem: the basic building block for democracy, a reasonably educated populace, is missing.

“Legitimate aspirations” articulated by few

The point here is that when western leaders talk lyrically about supporting “the legitimate aspirations of the people”, they are talking about an abstract construct. Certainly they are interpreting correctly the desires expressed by the Tahrir Square young Egyptians and many others. But Egypt has a population of over 80 million. And not even a small fraction was in Tahrir Square. The strong anti-Mubarak sentiment was real. But it was expressed by an elite and thus we cannot call it unanimous.

As all revolutions, the Egyptian uprising was led by a small segment of society. The elites have now the tough job of carrying along the rest of the country. The painful, complicated part is still ahead. Egypt is just emerging from the shadows. Popular participation in still a new concept. For example, the national referendum for amendments to the constitution that will finally lead to free elections saw a modest participation of around 40% of eligible voters. Rather underwhelming, I would say. The best organised political force to date is the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular, progressive forces are still in their infancy. We have seen episodes of anti-Christian rage, with people killed. Egypt, by far the best hope for Arab democracy, has a long way to go.

What role for the West?

As I indicated above, even allowing for special treatment in Libya’s case, the West has a tough job ahead if it wants to constructively help pre-modern societies graduate to the world of civic culture, accountable and honest government and workable development strategies. In the meantime, it will be hit and miss, with a lot of violence. While it is good to declare support for pro-democracy movements, we know that we cannot help so many legitimate causes in so many countries.

Lack of unity

On top of that the West, not to mention the rest of the world, is not at all united; while America, still licking its wounds caused by an awful recession coupled with the ill effects of runaway public spending, no longer has the agility and the means it used to have.

As I said, action on Libya is a special case. But, even in the case of military intervention against a madman, it took weeks for leaders to focus, acting in the end literally hours before it was all over. And the UN Security Council vote, while positive, reflected deep international divisions.

Leading developing countries, Germany not on board

Fate has it that the countries that abstained are all the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India and China did not agree on action in Libya. Add to them Germany and you have all the leading developing nations and by far the most important country in Europe. Let’s see: 1. 3 billion Chinese, 1.1 billion Indians; add the rest, and you get almost 3 billion people. No, not even on the morally compelling issue of dispatching a bizarre thug like Gaddafi there is real unity in the world.

The Arab struggle for democracy will be long and it has fewer supporters than one might have thought.

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