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Commentary

Continuing Uncertainties in the Arab World

Continuing Uncertainties in the Arab World

Ramy Raoof

Ramy Raoof

The powerful wave in favour of democracy has not only uprooted many well-entrenched dictatorial regimes in the Arab world but it has also paved the way for the emergence of new power-equations among member-states of the region and in their relations with several of the polar powers. The popular upsurge, the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia against strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, also known as Jasmine revolution, spreading over the Arab world has, perhaps, taken the most appropriate toll on the late Col. Gaddafi.

Earlier, it progressed through Egypt, ensuring the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, engulfed Yemen in flames, sparked a bloody strife in Syria and eventually wound its way to the armed clashes in Libya, finally culminated in the decisive victory for anti-Gaddafi protestors. Perhaps the deceased dictator of Libya had never even dreamt of such a violent and vicious death by the hands of the rebels in his hometown of Sirte. All through his 42 years of rule, he eliminated most of his opponents in the most heinous and macabre manner.

Although the shaken regimes in Syria and Yemen do survive at present, the crisis is not yet over because the political topography of the Arab world has already undergone a radical change. In fact, the uprooted regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya represented the legacy of the Cold War, although each is and was unique. The emerging Cold War schism between the two superpowers at the end of the second World War had ensured a relative sense of security, stability and certainty in the region because almost all countries, for variety of reasons, practiced alliance behavior with either of the superpowers who had vested interests in the oil wealth of the region.

It is only due to this interest in oil and gas that Europe and America maintained very cordial relations with Saudi Arab, Kuwait, Baharain, Qatar and Oman despite their repressive governance and gross violations of human rights. Similarly, the Soviet Union entered into the region with a view to protect its interests and to maintain their spheres of influence.

This nexus between superpowers and member-states of the region created and maintained a unique relationship between superpowers and member-states and among the states of the Middle East and North Africa. But this stability began to wither away with the fall of Mohammed Zahir Shah in Afghanistan followed by the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979.

Although not quite part of the Arab region, these countries were extensions of the Islamic community of states spanning from Central Asia to the Middle East with Iraq in between, exercising considerable influence on the local affairs of the region. The first phase of the post-second World War uncertainties began with American interventions in Korea and Vietnam, CIA’s support of regime change in Chili, Cuba, several states of the Americas, the Horn of Africa, but also in Egypt and Iran. This intervention was under the pretext of protecting their governments from communist interventions and promoting democracy under the legal garb of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshal Plan and the Eisenhower Doctrine.

In Iran, America worked to eliminate Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and consolidated the rule of King Reza Shah Pahelvi. Egypt, led first by Gen. Nagquib and later by Gamal Ahmed Nasser, altered the country’s pro-Western orientation and swung towards Moscow after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, prompted by a Anglo-French-Israel misadventure which further advanced Cairo towards Moscow.

Later, Nasser joined the Non-aligned Movement as one of its founding members, along with Nehru, Marshal Tito and Sukerno, thereby further strengthening the pro-Russia unity to the discomfort of the United States.

Further, the utopian concept of United Arab Republic, propagated by Nasser and including Syria and Yemen added fuel to fire. In Iraq and neighboring countries, the Baa’th Party ruled and even extended its control to Iraq where its rule was co-terminus with Saddam Hussein’s. All of them were stridently anti-Western and single-party ruled where even mock elections were held on the Russian model. Similarly, in Egypt, voting was compulsory but none could exercise this right against those in power.

For the role that the United States played during this period of the Cold War, it had always supported the Wahabi family of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Pakistan, military rulers in Greece and dictatorships in Latin America and Asia for continuing its policy of containment and for this very end, the United States also promoted those rightist dictators who could offer a potential challenge to the spread of communism. Thus, Gaddafi joined this anti-American alliance with grandiose ambitions of leading the Arab world based on his own incoherent ramblings about how to build an idylic society partially founded on the tenets of the Quran and partially on his firmly held egalitarian ideals.

But this was not possible due to intra-regional bickering. As it was the age of dictators, democracy, except by way of lip service was never seen, hence the pro-socialist slogans by these leaders also against imperialism and interventionism provided a long desired relief for the people of this region suffering from the bondage of hereditary monarchs and also from foreign power’s interventionist policies. The 1973 oil crisis, wherein oil-diplomacy ruled for the first time, in fact paved the way for the windfall for dictators. The quantum jump in international oil prices profited oil-rich Libya most of which prompted Gaddafi to initiate several development and modernization projects. For this purpose, he engaged engineers, doctors, and other professionals from across the world, particularly India and Pakistan.

The end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and consequent unipolarity and other new developments had caused a new phase of instability or uncertainty in this region particularly due to policies pursued by the United States. This period is highlighted by the first Gulf War. By this time, Egypt, which had no oil and had been bled by successive quixotic wars with Israel, had succumbed to American pressure, as Anwar Sadat overturned Nasser’s anti-Western policies. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, also followed the dictates of America which brought some prosperity to Egypt but Mubarak could not understand the deep-seated desire for freedoms desired by many Egyptians.

Gaddafi himself began his flamboyant career by usurping the authority of the King Idris in 1969 in a bloodless coup in the name of ‘cultural revolution’ which apparently, as usual, was for the sake of the protection of the popular will of the common people. That is why he got the required support of people at large. Riding on the crest of initial popularity, he immediately crowned himself Colonel.

In tandem with his eccentricity, he had a charisma which, in the beginning won him laurels not only among many ordinary Libyans but also in the entire Arab region. Born in 1940, Gaddafi was shrewd enough to capture the popular sentiments of anti-Americanism and anti-Western interventionism prevailing in the Arab world which always paid him rich dividends in term of popularity. An ardent admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab nationalism, he immediately evicted the Americans and British forces from their military bases in Libya, browbeat Western oil companies into paying more for access to his country’s oilfields and also declared support for the Palestinian cause. In the same manner, his anti-Israel propaganda, both through rhetoric and action, earned him a certain cachet with some in other Arab states who felt that their own leaders were too supine to act in a decisive way.

But his most enduring quality, his ability to estrange, would ensure his country’s isolation. A pariah state on the fringe of international affairs. For most of his four decade rule Gaddafi successfully maintained tight control over his regime by ruthlessly crushing and eliminating all of his dissidents. Approximately 2000 such dissidents were brutally eliminated in the very beginning of his rule. He had also not nominated his successor for reasons best known to him. He had a political philosophy of his own contained in the Green Book, his own version of Mao’s Little Red Book. An inexact mixture of socialism and Islam. It rejected liberal democracy and capitalism in favour of direct democracy waged through popular committees. State ownership of media was a prerequisite, as private ownership of television stations and newspapers represented an affront to real democracy.

The result was the world’s most cowed media, a vital element in the development of the vast kleptocracy that became Libya. Also, terrorism was the modus operandi of his regime as he became an active sponsor of terrorism. He not only aided and armed the IRA, but also tried to sink the Queen Elizabeth II, as it carried a group of 600 Jewish passengers through the Mediterranean towards Israel. Gaddafi also ordered the bombing of a night club in Berlin in 1986, followed by the bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing all 259 passengers on board. By far the heaviest loss of life in any terrorist attack in British history. Under Qaddafi, Libyan intelligence became the most brutal sponsor of terrorism against the West, particularly after the alleged death of his daughter in a US attack in 1986 during the Reagan administration. This thus completed Libya’s transformation into a pariah state.

With all profligacy, extravagance and lavishness, he exploited and looted his country and his people to the core all through his long oppressive rule, while ignoring his real duty to serve his countrymen. He never gave much thought to their education, health and employment or other basic needs. As a result, he and his family enjoyed all worldly pleasures in the maximum possible way, while the people at large remained condemned to live a life of utter penury devoid of the primary requirements of a life of dignity and honour.

When the rebels came out in mid-February to oppose his rule, they were gunned down in the hundreds. As his troops advanced on Benghazi, he arrogantly warned the rebels that there would be “no mercy, no pity. They would be hunted down, alley by alley, house by house, room by room.” These words may have been his undoing. Almost all through his years in power, he held a prominent position in the West’s gallery of rogue states, despite successful rapproachement with the West by renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programme in return for an end to sanctions. These efforts at reprochment reached its climax in 2004 with a visit by then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair commended Gaddafi as a new ally in the “War on Terror.”

In retrospect, his time had come when he turned his guns on insurgents and sent his army to cleanse Benghzi, prompting Western powers and NATO to open up a campaign of aerial bombing that allowed the insurgent forces to eventually oust him from power. Like most of the dictators of the contemporary world, he was never afraid of using deadly force against his opponents. Perhaps he can’t be compared with other dictators like Saddam Hussain, Idi Amin, Augsto Pinochet and Dock Duvelier because of the uniqueness of his style like love of comic-opera uniforms, exotic female bodyguards and Bedouin tents.

Although all throughout his life he recognised many realities, but what he could not recognise till the end was that the world had changed with the advent of satellite TV and, thereafter, the internet and its concomitant social media. He had his chances to escape the ignominy that finally visited him. He could have surrendered power to the National Transitional Council (NTC) that led the revolution; he could have bartered a deal with them in collaboration with the western powers for a safe exit from Libya and into a quiet exile, as some countries were willing to host him. However, he remained foolishly obdurate, failing to sense the changing mood of his countrymen. He simply refused to see the writing on the wall, even after the protestors in August overran Tripoli, from where he subsequently fled.

Thus, Gaddafi personified the peak of flamboyant vulgarity and oppression in all hues during his long rule. With his inevitable macabre killing by the rebels, a dark and horrible phase of his iron rule has come to an end. But his brutal end has not brought the Libyan revolution to an end rather it now enters a defining stage wherein the confusion prevails as to who owns the revolution. Gaddafi’s departure moves the scenario to the next stage when the National Transitional Council will be required to foster much greater cohesion and semblance of governance than is currently present.

Libya’s future is the most important question today, lest it may turn into another Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein. What kind of government do they aspire to have? How do they intend to deal with their oil wealth, which has been an important factor in determining the course of events in this transitional phase? What kind of husbanding of the country’s financial assets will the new leadership undertake? While the desire for democracy provided the spur and the impetus for the ‘Arab Spring’ in Libya, the issue now is the kind and extent of democracy which the leadership will see in a terrain where Gaddafi left no institutions standing to fulfill the bridging role - not even the Army, as in Egypt, although even there the jury is still out.

There will have to be genuine institutional building in a country which is essentially tribal in its ethos. The existence of sectarian divide within the TNC, with its head being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood further complicates matters going forward. The role of Muslim Brotherhood needs to be curtailed as it deeply longs for an Islamic Middle East which, in-fact, reflects an archaic and retrograde association of Muslim hardliners and fundamentalists. In the end, the Libyan people must come forward to decide what form of government they want. To the extent that it will be based on a participatory idea of governance, it will be good for the people, especially for the tribes who still continue to support the Gaddafi legacy.

Further, the pro-Gaddafi forces must be broght into the new transitional government because if they are excluded they could mount a counterinsurgency. For now, the National Transitional Council has significant international support, including the ever important financial support. However, if the National Transitional Council fails to transfer power to a credible and democratic entity reasonably soon, that could dry up, threatening another round of instability in Libya. The next major problem facing the leadership is how to dispose of the oil and gas wealth, much of which is already tied up in long-term contracts with the West. It is of course a sovereign decision of the National Transitional Council which will hold power till the eventual elections.

All efforts must be made by the world community to establish a viable democracy in Libya by helping the National Transitional Council with their elections to insure that the next few months pass smoothly. If this is not done, in several months from now a scorching summer symbolizing internal conflicts in the region will materialize paving the way for Islamists, potentially unfriendly to the West, to gain power and influence.

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