It has long been the West’s favorite excuse for supporting despotic regimes – without a strong man or strongmen in charge, these countries would devolve into (pick one) ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, colonial conflict and chaos. The system prevented countries evolving into modern states, encouraged corruption, encouraged internal terrorism by government, but it did manage to keep the illusion of peace and, more importantly, kept the goods, natural resources or agricultural products flowing to the West. America was always in the unique position of doing this without actually colonizing the client nations, unlike England, France and Germany. But it was always about being able to trade support for a dictator for everything from bananas to tin to oil. Our conservative have never caught on to the fact that this policy of supporting dictators to protect “American interests” is the reason so many people hate us. They’d rather blame it on hating our Western, secular lifestyle that face the truth of our past bad choices.
The right wing’s fear about the Arab Spring, their reason for condemning the removal of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Ben Ali was that these nations would not be able to control conflict without those despots. Now, they can crow about the riots that have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt this past week and the alleged civilian body count in Sirte, Libya. Glenn Beck must be in hogs’ heaven right now. He can point to these riots and weep about the phantom threat of the Caliphate.
In Tunisia, the riots were caused by Islamic fundamentalists who want the new government to be Islamic, like the one in Iran. They do not want constitutional protections for other religions, not even for less extreme forms of Islam. The flash point may be a university ban on women who wear a full face veil, though tensions have been mounting ever since the revolution last winter. These are people who want extreme Sharia law and will fight efforts to create a modern state in Tunisia.
In Egypt, the situation is reversed. The riots involved Coptic Christians, who have been harassed, attacked and had their churches vandalized since Mubarak was ousted in February. Under Mubarak, Christians were protected. The Coptic Church is one of the oldest derivatives of ancient Christianity and Egypt was in many ways the guardian of early Christianity in Roman times. Egyptian society has for decades exhibited an uneasy acceptance of the diversity of its population. The drive toward a more free society has brought out the worst in Egypt’s diverse people’s, each feeling that they are not receiving sufficient representation in the new government – a government that doesn’t exist as yet.
The fault in Egypt lies squarely with the military council ruling the country through the transition. They have not been open with the public. They have not outlined real plans for a constitutional convention. In fact, they put the cart before the horse on that score. They scheduled elections first, and rewriting the constitution second. Nation creation does not work that way, and the Egyptian people instinctively understand that. They have had too many years of a government that created a constitution to protect the government and not a constitution that creates a government to protect the people. The military council is stuck in reform mode and not nation creation mode and the people understand that is the wrong way to go about this. Egypt doesn’t need band-aids on its constitution. It needs to completely create a new constitution and a new form of government if the revolution is going to succeed in its long-term goal of a new Egypt.
In Libya, there are allegations that the National Transitional Council’s assault on Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte had led to thousands of civilian deaths, failure of needed medical supplies and food reaching the population and basically, a mirror image of the accusations that were leveled against Qaddafi’s forces during the siege of Misrata. It will not be known until the city is taken what the realities are. Certainly, civilians have been fleeing Sirte (something the people of Misrata could not do) and there have been high casualty rates on both sides. This is a revolution, and people die. That’s the hard truth. How many of those deaths are the result of NATO air attacks, how many were caused by Qaddafi’s snipers, how many caused by NTC shelling will have to be sorted after when U.N. forensic teams get in there. (Old small overlooked story – U. N. forensic teams go into sites with high body counts and determine the how and who. In Halabja, Iraq, they found that the town had not been wiped out by Hussein’s people, but was in the cross-fire of chemical weapons by Iran and Iraq.) The NTC claims that the allegations of civilian deaths are Qaddafi loyalist propaganda. It would have been nice if all of Libya had just accepted the NTC and the ouster of Qaddafi, but that was an unrealistic expectation. There were bound to be pockets of resistence to the new order, just as there were towns in the thirteen colonies that defended King George.
The one thing that can be said about the Arab Spring is the way each country is learning from the previous one’s mistakes. On one hand, there are the kings of Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan who watched Tunisia and Egypt and decided to take reform into their own hands, thereby avoiding revolutions. On the other, there is the Libyan revolution, where an interim government was established even before Qaddafi was defeated, an army was trained to defeat Qaddafi and mop up the resistence, and leaders representing various regions, tribes, cities and communities were brought together into the NTC to work out the mechanics of transition.
Anyone who hoped the Arab Spring would end with kumbaya moments and peaceful transitions was an idiot. The fracturing of Yugoslavia should have shown the world what happens when people who should never have been forced into a country suddenly find themselves liberated from the powers that created their inorganic nation. We can all get hysterical about the transitions or we can do what is needed – stand back and let a free people fight it out, work it out, do what they have to do to enter the 21st century. They may make mistakes, they probably will, but that is also necessary. Necessary to understanding what is happening in the Middle East is remembering that we didn’t get it right immediately either, and if you don’t remember that, may I suggest a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.