An entirely unforeseen arc of crisis has ruptured in the first quarter of 2011, across North Africa and into the Middle East, as a result of which neither the Arab political street — nor indeed any other anywhere — will ever be the same, argues DEA Consulting Editor MATT K GATHIGIRA
LEADERLESS UPRISINGS MEET HEADLESS NEW ORDER
History is full of the sagas of revolutions that consumed their own children, epitomised by the 18th Century’s French Revolution and its iconic guillotine and culminating in the the 20th Century’s Russian and Chinese Marxism-Leninism versions with their iconic gulags that branched off into the Stalinist-Maoist totalitarian abominations. But these were violent eruptions and irruptions, pitting entire societies in two of the world’s largest nations into class warfare and mass murder on an industrial scale.
The Arabian and Middle Eastern experience of 2011 genuinely appeared to be signally different. Tunisia’s uprising of December 2010 and January 2011 and Egypt’s revolution of January and February 2011 were all the more remarkable for being so overwhelmingly peaceable and resolutely non-violent on the part of the teeming protestors, thus capturing both the imagination and the spirit of billions around the globe.
But the uprising in Libya turned brutally and massively violent, spiralling out of control in gruesome scenes some of which not even Hollywood could either script or stage, when the regime took the attempted repression option. However, in Libya, as in Tunisia and Egypt, the spirit of the people was indomitable, their sheer hunger for change insatiable and their response to brutality swift and effective.
However, the social media network-propelled leaderless revolutions of Arabia would seem to be giving rise to equally faceless rulers-by-committee. In Egypt, the Military High Council took over from Hosni Mubarak and in Tunisia an individual interim leader has yet to rise head-and-shoulders above Ban Ali’s successors. How long before the individual leaders on both sides show both their faces and hands?
One of the most pithy and ironic observations to emerge from the maelstrom in Arabia was a remark on BBC World Service radio responding to news that post-Mubarak Egypt was already re-branding as tourist-friendly.
One analyst commented that North Africa’s and the Middle East’s antiquities tourist attractions were very largely monuments to slavery and autocracy and that the undemocratic mindset had prevailed over the region for millennia. This is the kind of insight that has the power of aphorism.
Nonetheless, the Arabian mindset, so long oppressed by potentates whose rule has been cruel and erratic to the point of eccentricity, appeared to be inexorably changing. And the change it seemed to presage showed many of the signs of the potential to be both extraordinarily fruitful and uniquely influential.
Whatever happens — or does not — next, the Arab and Islamic political street has changed forever in the first eight weeks of 2011 and its example will bring change elsewhere. The uprising arc of crisis stretches from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. US President Barack Obama hit the nail on the head with his remarks upon Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak’s departure when he said: “We are not defined by our differences but the common humanity we share was the voice of the Egyptian people. Above all, we saw a new generation emerge; a generation that used their own talents, creativity and technology calling the government to represent their hopes and fears.
“This is the power of human dignity and can never be denied. The Egyptians have inspired us. For the Egyptians it is the moral force of non-violence and not terrorism”.
The purely civilian ousting of entrenched leaders and regimes who once looked as immovable as Egypt’s pyramids and as inscrutable as the Sphinx was virtually inconceivable as recently as last Christmas. But it appeared to be fast turning into a fact of life, until it reached Libya and confronted the regime of “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”, Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, who has misruled since September 1, 1969, the year Man landed on the Moon, putting him firmly in the spotlight of international scrutiny and infamy.
When Gaddafi finally saw the power of human dignity turn slowly but inexorably in his direction, he decided to meet the irresistible force with an immovable-object counter-force of his own bizarre devising — he plunged Libya into a civil war endgame.
Obama also went straight to the heart of the matter soon after Mubarak threw in the towel in the face of massive and escalating demonstrations when he invoked Martin Luther King’s words about there being “Something in the soul that cries out for freedom” .
There is indeed, even in the unlikeliest places — for instance Gaddafi’s Libya.
After lashing out at demonstrators in several Libyan cities in horrific scenes of carnage — Air Force jets and helicopters bombing and machine-gunning demonstrators, snipers in rooftop nests, including mercenary marksmen thought to be of Malian origin, and goons in cruising cars unleashing random drive-by shootings, Gaddafi finally emerged from a deep-cringe hiding place and made the definitive speech of his 42-year-long so-called leadership.
It was Tuesday February 21 when Gaddafi finally became emboldened enough to address a nation on fire on state TV. In his rasping and guttural voice, he launched into a deluded and ultimately deranged harangue of his would-be people. He spoke for more than an hour, threatening the execution of any and all who had taken up or would take up arms against Libya, even going to the extent of reading out the relevant clauses in the penal code that spell out the parameters for execution.
Urging his supporters to go out into the streets and hunt down “the cockroaches” who were demonstrating against his rule and hand them over to the authorities for trials without mercy, Gaddafi was like a much distracted, indeed distraught, man talking to himself. The background to his address to the nation was not a flag or coat of arms — such as in Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s case before him — but a burnt-out shell of a building, the remains of part of his bombed-out compound hit by the US Air Force back in 1986 and preserved as a monument of defiance against the West.
Not since Idi Amin of Uganda, and, before that, Adolf Hitler of wartime Germany, had a world figure held forth before the cameras and uttered such toxic bilge. “His speech is full of death,” a young Libyan told the BBC in halting English, nonetheless making his point powerfully.
This was no longer merely the lunatic fringe; Gaddafi on his way down constituted Lunacy Central itself. The speech was one of the most tragic declamations to come from a head of state in history. His internal security minister, Abdel Fatah Yunes, promptly resigned and urged the army to join the uprising.
AU’s TIED TONGUE
At the United Nations in New York, the Libyan delegation split, with the ambassador claiming to be urging Gaddafi to relent and his deputy joining the revolution as did the envoy to the US, Ali Suleiman Ajuli.
Diplomacy’s appalled and slow response to the madness unleashed in Libya by the regime’s violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations surprised many lay people around the world. When it finally roused itself to comment, the UN Security Council could only manage a feeble (to most non-diplomat ears) “the members of the Security Council express grave concern at the situation in Libya”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced “The United States continues to watch the situation in Libya with alarm”.
At a crisis meeting of its permanent reptresentatives, the 22-member Arab League barred Libya from its meetings and threatened to suspend its membership unless Gaddafi listens to the protesters.
As we went to press the 53-member African Union had yet to utter an official word about Libya. Initially peaceful protesters in five Libyan cities — including Benghazi and Tobruk, which last hit the world headlines during World War II — who had coordinated their demonstrations over Facebook were met with machinegun, anti-aircraft and sniper fire. Before the bullets begun to fly, Facebook, other social networking websites and Internet connections were cut or suddenly became intermittent.
Before Egypt’s 18 Days of Rage had come Tunisia’s 28 Days of Anger, toppling President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has now reportedly descended into a coma in exile in Saudi Arabia after a post-fall stroke.
Between them, Ben Ali and Mubarak had mis-ruled their peoples a combined 54 years with scant regard for the democratic virtues or civil society. Mubarak had ruled 30 years without a vice president, the position from which he himself rose to the presidency.
And now Libya, sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, has erupted, putting a ruling figure who is even more eccentric than Ben Ali and Mubarak combined on notice that his time is well and truly up.
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
By attempting to disconnect the social media networking sites, the Tripoli regime was not only shutting the eyes and ears of its outraged citizens, it was also busy snuffing out their lives using wartime calibre ammunition and tactics — for instance, rooftop snipers, a a murder elite that is normally only deployed in high-profile political assassinations and full-blown wars.
A terrifying video that is doing the rounds on YouTube shows what happens when ground-based civilians are picked off by roof-top marksmen. A silenced rifle with a sniper scope and a marksman on the trigger is something no civilians anywhere can ever be prepared for. A group of young men rushing around the streets in Tripoli is captured on the video footage slowly coming to the horrific realisation that some of their number are no longer with them. “They are killing us!” they cry, not yet having figured out exactly how. Goons armed with hammers and swords invaded residential estates, laying into unsuspecting families, including very young children, in a bizarre attempt to preempt protesters pouring into the streets.
When news of Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli in the direction of either Venezuela or his home village in the vast Sahara Desert first broke out, it was followed by an Air Force bombardment of demonstrators in Tripoli and elsewhere, killing hundreds. The British Daily Mail newspaper bore the headline “Mad Dog Gaddafi flees as regime crumbles”. It was US President Ronald Reagan who, at an April 9, 1986, news conference referred to Gaddafi as “This mad dog of the Middle East”. Calling an Arab a dog is bad enough even in the best of times, but adding madness to the insult is considered to be beyond the pale.
Gaddafi also deployed the dog tag in late February — to 24/7 news television, in tantalising less-than-a-minute video footage run on state TV, ostensibly to show that he was still in Tripoli and had not fled. Brandishing an umbrella he declared: “I am here to show that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Don’t believe those misleading dog stations”. Analysts noted that the all-too-brief clip was highly unusual for the verbose Gaddafi. They did not have long to wait for the full-blast version.
As all this canine talk was doing the rounds, someone let the dogs of war — mercenaries — out in Tripoli, as Gaddafi lost the support of most of the army and other security formations, retreating into an ever diminishing and tightening circle of hard-core tribe-based supporters. The regime took time off to strenuosly deny deploying any mercenaries on its side, saying at one point that some of Libya’s tribesmen are naturally dark-skinned.
But by the end of February, it was clear that mercenaries from other parts of Africa and from the Balkans were running amok in Libya, reportedly being paid as much as US$30,000 per Dog of War.
As the bunker mentality finally kicked in, Gaddafi told no-longer-interested Libyans that he ultimately envisaged a martyr’s end for himself, apparently unconscious of any disconnect between his display in the same address as penal code-quoting Executioner-in-Chief and this acknowledgement of mortality. Perhaps, in the recesses of his tortured mind, “martyrs” die a much more dignified and different death from two-legged “cockroaches”.
Two key words from another famous Obama quote derived from Dr King quickly came to mind when elements of the Libyan Air Force bombed civilians and Gaddafi finally delivered what could well be his terminal rave and rant: Content of character. So this was the content of the character of Brotherly Leader’s regime, when push came to shove?
SECOND-BORN FIRST SON
The quality of Gaddafi’s eccentricity came through even before he finally showed himself during the crisis. After the uprising in Benghazi drove off the murderous mercenaries, said to comprise mostly naturalised Malians whose antecedents came to Libya rwo decades ago, and took over the city, Gaddafi, who, at that point had neither been heard from nor seen in public since the uprising started, brought out his second-born but favourite son, the billionaire Saif al-Islam el-Gaddafi, to address the nation on state TV and radio.
This was a totally unexpected move, but brazenly in character for Gaddafi.
Where Ben Ali had seen his favourite son and daughter-in-law leave Tunisia at the height of the uprising ahead of him with tons of gold bullion and Mubarak saw his favourite son and designated heir Gamal and daughter-in-law flee to Britain with 100 pieces of luggage, Gaddafi trotted out First Son Saif in an attempt to mollify the seething, restive masses.
Saif’s address to the Libyan people was an incoherent blend of bluff, threat, panic-button-pushing and abject concessions. He even offered a change of flag and national anthem, if the demonstrators so wished. In the same breath, he also warned of civil war and re-colonisation and accused all manner of players of being responsible for the murder and mayhem — from foreigners to (presumably Libyan) drug addicts.
The Economist newsmagazine of London reported thar Saif’s mother is Balkan, Sofija (now Islamicised as Safija) Farkas, Gaddafi’s second wife, a Bosnian Croat from Mostar.
A NEW MIDDLE EAST?
The eruptions in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman — and, as we went to press, Iran, showed vital signs of an uprising too, to the utter horror of the ayatollahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — all point to interesting times ahead. Algeria, too, has evinced these vital signs, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika being the man on the spot. His regime has promised to lift a state of emergency that has been in place since the early 1990s. But do all these uprisings presage the rise of democracy and civil society right across Arabia? And if they indeed do, where would such a state of affairs leave Israel, for seven decades now the epicentre of the Middle East’s never-ending crises?
Five years down the road, can the world expect to see an Israel surrounded by eminently democratic Arabian nations compelled to change fundamentally and the Palestinian Question finally resolved? As three of the most entrenched and powerful potentates of Arabia have discovered to their utter ruin, the power of human dignity is unstoppable even by massive military forces and the most terrifying ordnance
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