The title alone probably caused a few heart attacks from the atheists who visit the site from Twitter or Facebook – please rest assured I am not talking about a deity. No, I am referring once again to the important thing that is happening. The Middle East and northern Africa are still up in arms over the protests and changes in power, and we are starting to see some of the political fallout of these actions.
At least 30 civilians have been killed after security forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader, attempted to retake the rebel-held town of Az Zawiyah, near the capital Tripoli, that has for days been defying his rule, witnesses have said. The rebellion in Az Zawiyah – the closest rebel-held territory to the capital and also the site of an oil refinery – has been an embarassment to the Libyan authorities who are trying to show they control at least the west of the country. Eastern regions of the country, around the city of Benghazi, have already fallen out of Gaddafi’s control after a popular revolt against his four decades of rule.
Widespread fighting is happening all across Libya. What makes the situation in Libya much different from Egypt or Tunisia is the fact that the pro-government forces (including part of the military) are unashamedly attacking Libyan civilians, and the anti-government forces are responding in kind. This has the potential to turn into a civil war (although MSNBC’s Richard Engel points out that a civil war is really defined by civilian forces attacking other civilian forces, which is not really the case here… yet), with the “People’s Army” arming itself and rising violently against the government. Attempts by the government to retake eastern cities has been largely unsucessful, and the anti-government protests appear to have hit Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli.
While I would very much like to believe that once the army has overthrown Gaddafi they will divest themselves of their arms and stand for peaceful elections. There is not a lot of precedent for “people’s armies” doing anything other than installing themselves as a new regime, and perpetrating the same evils of the old regime on a different group of people. One can only hope that the international community shows some uncharacteristic restraint and doesn’t listen to idiots like Joseph Liebermann and John McCain, who want to arm and train the rebels. Yeah, because that strategy’s never failed before…
Egypt’s new Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, has pledged to meet the demands for democratic change sought by protesters, and to resign if he fails. He made the comments in an address before thousands gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square before Friday prayers. The former transport minister told the crowds that he drew his “will and determination” from the people. Mr Sharaf replaced Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed in the dying days of the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Essam Sharaf is an interesting guy, who I have some hope for. Unlike many of his contemporaries in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, Sharaf didn’t just suddenly discover his taste for democratic reform once the people began calling for politicians’ heads on pikes. He’s been a critic of the Mubarak government for a few years, which lends him a great deal of credibility in my eyes. The trick to democratic reform is that you cannot guarantee that the outcome will be what you like. Sharaf seems to understand this, and is pressing for democratic reform anyway. However, a lot can happen in between now and August, when the current provisional government has been ordered to step down.
I would very much like to believe that Egypt, a state with a strong secular history and many Western ties, can implement a real democratic state following constitutional reforms. The forbearance of the army during the popular uprising strongly suggests to me that they are not interested in grabbing power from the people, but instead are invested in returning Egypt to a state of relative peace and stability. Only time will tell though.
Tunisia’s interim president Fouad Mebazaa has announced details of new elections promised after the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Mr Mebazaa said voting for a council of representatives to rewrite the constitution would be held by 24 July. He said a new interim government would run the country until then.
This is even more encouraging, because an actual date has been set. I react viscerally and negatively to any “plans” that are made without concrete details. When someone says “we should hang out sometime” or “someone should do this” or “yeah, Ian, best sex ever, I’ll call you sometime”, I immediately write off that statement (and, sometimes, the person making it). President Mebazaa has made a definitive date for new governmental elections. Good thing, right? Well…
The political confusion has been compounded by the constitutional provision limiting a caretaker president to 60 days in office, he adds. Mr Mebazaa has argued that, since the current constitution no longer has any credibility, he will stay in office beyond the limit. In his speech, he said the constitution “no longer reflects the aspirations of the people after the revolution”.
This, this, this, THIS is how it starts. First, a politician says that he is taking “temporary” power. Second, he claims to represent the will of “the people”. Third, he says that the rules of the constitution (or whatever document) do not apply in this unique situation. Fourth, he declares himself to have emergency powers until the state of _________ has been resolved, after which he will call for free elections. Fifth, the state of emergency is constantly renewed, meaning that no elections ever take place. Sixth, free speech criticizing the seizing of power is branded as seditious and treasonous, and political opposition is therefore outlawed. Seventh, meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
I want very much to believe that democratic states can foster in the Middle East and northern Africa. I’d love to see the same spirit of peaceful and organized protest carry forward into a secular state that respects free speech and individual human rights. But, as with all things, I am extremely skeptical.
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