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Tunisian And Egyptian Revolutions Take Bad Turn

Tahrir Square, Cairo, Feb. 9

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.

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2 Responses to Tunisian And Egyptian Revolutions Take Bad Turn

  1. Gil

    October 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I totally agree with your analysis regarding the purpose of those puppet dictators. Their looking the other way with regards to the Palestinian issue was another reason why the western powers where happy with them in place.

    I also agree that things are going to take time to ripen, it took the European countries centuries to work out good democratic systems.

    With regards to Tunisia I am more optimistic than you. I think that within two years from now Tunisia will rightfully be able to call itself a functioning democracy. It will even be a predominantly secular democracy. Most Tunisians agree that their country will still remain known as a Muslim country, but that should really be no one else’s concern. After all, Israel is also officially known as a Jewish state and most Americans would have no problem recognizing it as a democracy.

    Out of the cacophony of 110 new political parties that have sprung up during the last few months it happens that the largest one will be Enahda, a moderately Islamist party. Enhahda has been around and has spent the last two decades preparing for this moment. Since most of its leaders were forced into European exile by the former government, they had plenty of time to study politics there and have learned how to run an electoral campaign. Enahda is the only Islamist party projected to gain any seats in the council that will be elected on October 23rd. According to polls it will garner about 20% of the votes. Much of the western media is now shouting that the “largest” party in Tunisia will be an Islamist party. While that may technically be correct, they are omitting that this also means that 80% of the seats will be in secular hands.
    Then there are the handful of hard line fundamentalists known as Salafists, which have recently made some negative headlines. However they are such a small minority, not only will they not gain any seats, but they can also easily be dealt with by any democratically elected government, in case they should continue to break the law.
    I am very confident that Tunisia will set up a model to be followed.

  2. Michael Caster

    October 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    In one sense I see what you are trying to say but I generally disagree.

    You acknowledge that Western political and economic neocolonialism, unequal trade negotiations enforced by corrupt international organizations beholden to Western interests, the shallow political stability of backing dictators, to name a few, have lead to gross instability and suffering in much of the world and increased anti-American sentiment. I agree with this.

    You then make a valid point that the process of democratization is a long and bloody path. The civil war example you provide, for example. The United States was in some respects allowed to make its own mistakes, true. I would add that we conceive of democratization and de-democratization.

    But I disagree with your point that the world should now just stand back and “let them fight it out.” That the US government is now authorizing secret detention and assassination of its citizens should produce outcry, advocacy, and activism from the rest of the world.

    The solution of non-intervention will only allow for a situation where the most powerful forces within these countries will win. These are often the forces that have profited in the past from unequal domestic situations. To just stand back and let the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia, Syria, etc. fight it out and make their own mistakes will unnecessarily protract violence. Had the world stood back and let South Africa make its own mistakes instead of engaging in a transnational solidarity movement to oppose Apartheid… I am not going to engage in counterfactual history but you get the point.

    I will give another example. China’s foreign policy mantra is to stand back and let domestic actors fight it out, they do not intervene in the national affairs of other countries, on paper. Except that they do. They support dictators and supply them with the weapons used to kill their citizens. This kind of foreign policy mantra only sounds good because we are approaching it from a flawed notion of the choices available.

    The interconnections of the current global structure of power means that countries who have lead to the instability have a responsibility to address their past actions. Furthermore, the United Nations clearly has a vocabulary for the responsibility to protect. While this has not proved successful in the past, re Rwanda, it may be tested in a more equal way by including myriad nations and discourses in the process.

    Your point, letting them fight it out to enter the 21st century assumes they are not in the 21st century. They are. What is needed is not a hands off until the last group remains standing approach. What is needed is an honest discussion of the West’s role in creating the dictators in the first place; a discussion of responsibility for the past. An acknowledgement of culpability is the first step toward empowering those who have been exploited and abused. The discussion should not be framed around two scenarios 1) intervene forcefully with overwhelming, primarily, military forces and usher in a new phase of domination; or 2) stand by and do nothing.

    A third option is to engage, to stimulate a transparent, equal discourse, to provide for domestic development without eyes on material extraction, to provide physical support for the marginalized populations within these nations. However, I understand reservations. It has not been in the track record of Western nations to employ these policies, of course. However, that is no reason to move back to a pre-21st century flawed concept of non-intervention.

    I am a proponent of the responsibility to protect. I believe in moral cosmopolitanism. I am also a strong opponent of Western imperialism. But I feel that the discussion should provide positive alternatives to colonialism and domination that do not guarantee the continued exploitation of marginalized groups and subgroups.

    This is the first time I have visited your page. This is just my opinion in response to a section of this article. On the whole I enjoyed it. Thank you.