Gaddafi’s not ready to leave: Libyan anti-government protesters waving a pre-regime Libyan flag in the city of Zintan.
The winds of change are buffeting the Arab world. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, another historic revolution is upending the familiar order of a whole region. From the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the shores of Oman, the Arab street is rising against oppressive and corrupt regimes. A new world is coming into being in what the West used to call the Orient.
The spark of insurrection, struck on Dec. 17, 2010, by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit hawker, quickly spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak soon followed Ben Ali into political oblivion. But that was not the end of it. Street protests rippled through Algeria and Morocco, shook up Palestine and Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain and, with explosive force, Gaddafi’s Libya.
Those protests were home-made, not imported from the West (which, worried as Americans and Europeans alike were about the “stability” of their unsavory allies, hesitated far too long to welcome the Arabs’ return to history). The causes of the unrest are obvious: brazen repression; wanton self-enrichment of the ruling elites; recession plus rising food prices; and – most importantly – the pent-up wrath of a young generation without any hope of ever seeing its aspirations for a decent future fulfilled. The young vented their rage, and they did so deftly using the new information technologies – mobile phones, computers, and the social networks of the Internet.
The oriental despots should have been warned. In 2002, Mark Malloch Brown, then UN deputy secretary general, authorized the publication of the Arab Human Development Report. In it, a team of Arab experts analyzed a growing range of political, social and economic challenges, from unemployment and poverty reduction to peace and enhanced human security. “Much needs to be done”, they said, “to provide current and future generations with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need to build a better future for themselves and their families.” Tackling the scourge of joblessness, strengthening personal freedoms and boosting broad-based citizen participation in political and economic affairs they identified as urgent tasks.
Within days of the report’s release the Arabic language edition was downloaded a million times. But the regional potentates turned a blind eye to it. As Brown recently reminded the readers of the Financial Times, a ministerial meeting of the Arab League condemned the calls for democracy, women’s rights and secular education as well as the reports warnings of the region’s stagnation and youth unemployment. The Arab world descended further into paralysis and serfdom.
The West, too, preferred to look the other way. Stability was the watchword, the peace of Israel appeared best safeguarded by autocrats like Mubarak, and the free flow of oil was by no means to be jeopardized – never mind the low freedom score of the Arab countries and the sterile backwardness of their frozen-in-time societies.
While it can be argued that Middle Eastern peace and the untrammeled flow of oil are legitimate strategic interests that justify dealing even with despots, calling the bizarre Muammar Gaddafi “friend” and conniving in the whims of this arch-terrorist (remember the La Belle and Lockerbie bombings?) was altogether opprobrious. Selling weapons to savage autocrats, using their torturers, welcoming them in the Socialist International, accepting their invitations for luxurious holidays and embracing them ardently in front of TV cameras transgressed all limits of permissible realpolitik. In this way, support for stability morphed into repression of democracy.
No less disgraceful were the first hesitant reactions, both in Europe and America, to the oriental uprisings. It took the West a long time to find its voice, tell the Arab regimes to listen to the demands of their peoples, and impose sanctions on Gaddafi. It is a moot question whether they will suffice to break his stubborn resistance. As in Kosovo, the military option may yet come into play.
The Arab revolution is not over yet. It is hard to see how it is going to play out. Gaddafi may fight to the finish, escape into exile, be indicted, like Miloševi?, in the Hague court or end, like Ceausescu, before a firing squad. Elsewhere in the Arab arc of crisis, different outcomes should be expected in different countries. If history is any guide, we ought to heed three lessons.
First: Not all revolutions succeed. Some degenerate into a reign of terror and wind up in a new autocracy. That was the fate of the French Revolution. Others are brutally put down or simply peter out, leaving the ancient regime unscathed and at the helm – for instance the diverse European revolutions of 1848. Again others replace the overbearing old rulers with a crude dictatorship far less humane than the old elite – Russia in 1917 and Iran in 1979 come to mind.
Second: Even successful revolutions need time to find their bearings and get organized for the post-revolutionary age. Often they get sidetracked, and sometimes defiled, by their ravenous concentration on taking revenge. In each case, they have to recruit, train and install new leadership personnel. And there is never any certainty about what kind of democracy will emerge. Nor does the spread of democracy to non-Western civilizations intrinsically mean that they will take over the western catalogue of values. Westminster does not provide the only thinkable model.
Third: There is no shortcut to prosperity. Rising expectations confront limited means. Disappointment caused by the slow pace of economic development could devour the architects of the revolution.
From these lessons of history flow three recommendations. Let us wholeheartedly applaud the brave revolutionaries. Let us help them establish democratic structures, teach them – if they want to be taught – democratic norms and processes, and strengthen the ability to withstand their militaries’ drive for predominance. Finally, let us lend them economic support – not necessarily a grandiose Marshall Plan but some practical and practicable start-up aid to brighten the horizons of the young generation. In this endeavor, they should not spare their own moneyed class. Its members have to chip in. So should the Arab oil sheikhs: This is their chance to prove that pan-Arabism is more than an empty slogan.
What the West can learn from the upheaval in the Islamic world is this: That we should never again succumb to the fallacy that some peoples, some races, some civilizations are forever lost to despotism.