Democracy’s new crucible - Praful Bidwai - Monday, March 07, 2011

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The whirlwind of protests that overthrew Tunisian president Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali and Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mubarak continues unabated. The entire Arab world is in revolt, from Yemen and Bahrain in the Gulf to Morocco and Algeria in the Maghreb, to Sudan and Djibouti in the South. Protests in one country are inspiring revolts in others.

Libya is the latest flashpoint. There, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi faces an unprecedented and powerful popular revolt. He has lost territory along a 600-km stretch along the Mediterranean Sea, including major cities like Benghazi and Misrata, to the opposition. Sections of the army have gone over to the protesters. Large numbers of ministers (including the justice minister) and diplomats have resigned.

Qaddafi’s regime, in power since 1969, has responded to the peaceful protests by unleashing savage repression, killing over 1,000 people. Qaddafi says he will fight to “the last drop of his blood”. In a hysterical outburst, Qaddafi maligned the protesters as drug addicts, radical Islamists and American agents. He threatened: “Libya will burn.”

Qaddafi’s rants merely prove he’s desperate. His support base is now extremely thin. Meanwhile, opposition forces are closing in on Tripoli. Qaddafi’s exit seems only a matter of time.

However, the post-Qaddafi transition won’t be easy. Libya (population. 6.5 million) has no political parties, trade unions or civil society organisations. But it’s Africa’s third-largest oil producer and has the continent’s biggest proven oil reserves - 44 billion barrels. So, the Western powers, led by the US, are propping up groups like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which would like to reinstall the monarchy and pursue a pro-West oil policy.

The US is repositioning warplanes and ships close to Libya. Forty neoconservatives, who had earlier grouped under the Project for a New American Century, and now use another banner, Foreign Policy Initiative, have demanded that President Obama militarily intervene to help topple Qaddafi.

Such fervent “humanitarian” appeals weren’t made when Israel invaded Gaza in 2009, killing hundreds of civilians. Nor are they being made with respect to the slavishly pro-US dictatorships of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. Mercifully, Libya’s opposition has firmly rejected the idea of external military intervention.

Libya is marked by strong and distinct tribal identities. The loyalty of Qaddafi’s own tribe, Al-Qaddafa, one of 15 major groupings, will be crucial to his survival. He will finally rely on his ultra-loyal, well-armed 3,000-strong Revolutionary Guard Corps, drawn primarily from his tribe. But if recent trends and reports are anything to go by, the Al-Qaddafa tribe’s loyalty could prove fickle. In many parts of Libya, troops sent to put down protests instead joined the opposition.

Qaddafi’s Libya is a sordid case of misgovernance and brutally repressive rule. The dictator gained some credibility early on when he deposed King Idris, nationalised Libya’s oil, and promoted pan-Arab and pan-African solidarity. But he has squandered it.

Despite the country’s oil wealth, one-third of Libyans are unemployed. And Libya has increasingly followed neoliberal policies under capitalist globalisation, which have impoverished its people.

Yet, Qaddafi recently became a great favourite of the US which saw him as “a strong partner in the war against terrorism”. According to WikiLeaks cables, the US Ambassador in Tripoli regarded him as a major force “to blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam”.

Qaddafi will have to go sooner or later - hopefully, very soon. That should send a strong signal to authoritarian Arab governments: reliance on brute force - a Qaddafi specialty, unlike in Egypt, where Mubarak restrained the army, and called back thugs who attacked crowds in Tahrir Square on February 2 - cannot ensure regime survival. It’s best to negotiate a transition to some kind of broad-based government while it’s still possible.

The problem is, that’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, in most countries in West Asia-North Africa, which have seen protests ignited by popular aspirations for democracy and accountable governance, for food security and employment, and for modernisation of society and politics.

The mould of conservatism and backwardness into which Arab rulers had cast their societies for decades is breaking up. There is a great urge for freedom, liberation from despotic rule, and participatory democracy.

Some people, especially in the West, fear that Islamist radicals like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and even al-Qaeda, would gain the most if existing Arab regimes are toppled. This fear is grossly exaggerated. The Brotherhood is a relatively moderate, non-violent organisation which believes in a degree of pluralism. In Egypt, it was only one of four components of the movement that toppled Mubarak - the others being the youth, the radical Left, and a middle class disaffected with economic uncertainty and corruption.

The Brotherhood didn’t try to take over the anti-Mubarak movement, but worked with a broad coalition, of which former International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Mohammed El Baradei is the foremost leader.

As for al-Qaeda, it has played absolutely no role in the opposition movements in the Arab world, despite Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring many Arab dictators, including Mubarak, un-Islamic and Western puppets for years.

As a US scholar puts it: “Knocking off Mubarak has been al-Zawahiri’s goal for more than 20 years, and he was unable to achieve it. Now a non-violent non-religious pro-democracy movement got rid of him in a matter of weeks. It’s a major problem for al-Qaeda.”

That al-Qaeda could not take advantage of the turmoil in the Arab world to instigate militancy and religious fanaticism spells a strategic defeat for its jihadi ideology, which clearly has no appeal for Arab youth.

The real challenge before the popular revolts in the Arab world is not how to fight jihadi Islam, but how to bring about a transition to a radical democracy which empowers people. This is still an unfinished task, even in Egypt. The army still controls power in Egypt. It has not yet revoked the state of emergency, freed political prisoners, or announced an interim government which can hold elections to a constituent assembly. Meanwhile, some components of the Egyptian movement, such as that led by Google’s marketing head Wael Ghonim have sloughed off from the main body. What’s emerging is a de-centred movement, which skilfully uses social network tools like Facebook and Twitter, and whose demands have expanded beyond the issues of unemployment and poverty that had ignited the original rebellion.

How the transition to a radical democracy which expresses aspirations for freedom and economic empowerment will occur still remains unclear. But hopefully, movements in the Arab world will inspire similar aspirations and struggles outside the region - just as social movements did in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile in Latin America during the past decade.

Even if status quo-ist forces take over the Arab world’s movements, and abort the transition to participatory democracy, the movements’ demands, aspirations and mobilisation methods will stay. The shock waves generated by demonstrations, strikes, self-defence committees and other forms of popular mobilisation will resonate in every country hit by neoliberal globalisation, the recent global explosion in food prices, and rising unemployment.

The Arab world could become the midwife of great changes across the globe. We must all wish the popular revolts well and express solidarity with them.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights

activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@

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