For someone with a more than passing interest in politics, religion and human rights, my cup doth overflow this week with stuff to talk about. I am hoping to group this week’s posts thematically so as not to completely drown you in my random thoughts, but if my threads aren’t clear please forgive me – I am doing my best.
I am not an expert in international law or foreign relations (“and the ‘Understatement of the Year’ award goes to…“), but I knew that the protests in Egypt were going to be a big deal. What I didn’t for a moment suspect is that they would explode in the way they have, turning much of the Arab world on its heels in a way that, to my knowledge, has no precedent. Of course my attention, along with the rest of the world’s, has moved from Egypt to Libya where things have taken a much more frantic and vitriolic turn. However, when I got a chance to step back from the rah-rah pro-democracy feeling I had about what’s happening, I realized that there’s a much more interesting picture happening.
The more things change…
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention (and you really should be), Libya has been completely turned upside down:
Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s long-standing ruler, has reportedly lost control of more cities as anti-government protests continue to sweep the African nation despite his threat of a brutal crackdown. Protesters in Misurata said on Wednesday they had wrested the western city from government control. In a statement on the internet, army officers stationed in the city pledged “total support for the protesters”. Much of the country’s east also seemed to be in control of the protesters, and an Al Jazeera correspondent, reporting from the city of Tobruk, 140km from the Egyptian border, said there was no presence of security forces
Libya has an interesting political layout. In the stereotypical style of a warlord, Gaddafi was able to unite a number of tribes under one banner that was formerly ruled by a monarch. Libya has no constitution per se, instead purportedly relying on the general will of the people to govern itself. However, in reality it has been a dictatorship that is only egalitarian on paper. There is a significant east/west divide, based on historical tribal affiliations, now punctuated by the dictator’s strongholds in the western city of Tripoli standing in opposition to the bastion of the anti-government movement based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The take-home message of all of this is that eastern Libya (which, perhaps coincidentally, shares a border with Egypt) is out of government control. Not only has Gaddafi lost control of the eastern cities, but his power base is rapidly crumbling:
Libyan diplomats across the world have either resigned in protest at the use of violence against citizens, or renounced Gaddafi’s leadership, saying that they stand with the protesters. Late on Tuesday night, General Abdul-Fatah Younis, the country’s interior minister, became the latest government official to stand down, saying that he was resigning to support what he termed as the “February 17 revolution”
While I have to express a little bit of skepticism at the true motivation behind these resignations and sudden allegiance to the protesters, the short-term result is that Gaddafi is finding himself more and more without allies.
Libya isn’t the only place facing major changes as result of protest:
Algeria’s cabinet has adopted an order to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency in a concession designed to avoid the tide of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, but protesters said the measure did not go far enough. A draft law approved by the cabinet would repeal the emergency law as soon as it is published in the government’s official journal, the official Algerie Presse Service reported on Wednesday. Ending the emergency powers was one of the demands voiced by opposition groups which have been staging weekly protests in the Algerian capital that sought to emulate uprisings in Egypt and neighbouring Tunisia.
These “emergency powers” are nearly always problematic, especially in countries with a weak opposition party. To exist in a state of emergency for 19 years is essentially the government’s way of cracking down on all opposition and adopting a sort of “l’état, c’est moi” approach to governance wherein the political rulers conflate themselves with the entire country – political dissent thereby becomes treason. Seemingly inspired by what’s been happening in neighbouring countries, Algerians have pushed the government to release their grip in an effort to save their state control. They’ve also passed a number of economic measures designed to stimulate the private sector (which makes my inner capitalist very happy). We’ll see if it goes far enough to placate the people, who may not stop until they have achieved the same kind of wholesale change being demanded in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and their other African neighbours.
…the more they stay the same
It is incredibly tempting to see these protests as the dawning of a new era of Western-style democracy in the Middle East, but such a conclusion would be incredibly naive. The region doesn’t have a history of democratic rule, and has far too much foreign entanglement to simply start afresh. One of the most sensitive entanglements is that of the United States:
In finally supporting the Tahrir experiment, President Obama was, in effect, pledging to end decades of American hypocrisy in its policies towards the Middle East and larger Muslim world. But in order to live up to this promise he will have to develop one set of policies for all the peoples and countries of the region. And doing that will demand an even more costly break with the past, putting old allies at arm’s length until they respect the rights of their peoples while embracing, however tentatively, groups that once seemed more easily characterised as, if not quite foes, then at least untrustworthy partners in securing American interests.
Unless the United States (and the West in general) suddenly becomes uncharacteristically non-interventionalist and allows these protests to reach their equilibrium on their own, there is a real risk that after a brief and bloody insurrection, the status quo will simply re-emerge and the region will simply exchange one set of dictatorial rulers for another. This, sadly, seems to be the case in Egypt:
Egypt’s key portfolios of defence, interior, foreign, finance and justice were unchanged in a cabinet reshuffle, state television confirmed. The list of new ministers that was presented on Tuesday included changing the veteran oil minister, as well as introducing politicians who had been opposed to the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down from office after widespread protests. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the ruling military council and has been defence minister for about 20 years, took the new ministers’ oaths of office.
But the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest opposition group, said the new cabinet showed that Mubarak’s “cronies” still controlled the country’s politics. “This new cabinet is an illusion,” Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood member, said. “It pretends it includes real opposition but in reality this new government puts Egypt under the tutelage of the West.”
One must be aware of the fact that these criticisms come from the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not support democratic rule, and any pro-democracy politicians could be considered “under the tutelage of the West”. Given that the entire direction of this movement is balancing on a knife edge, the only way to ensure there is no backlash against Europe and America is to stay the hell away from the whole situation, and encourage the protesters to decide their own path.
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