Two months of tumult: Pointers for the global tomorrow

The two months since the fall of Tunisia’s Pres. Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali have been marked by tumult throughout the Arab world and now, most recently, by the mega-lethal effects that geological and oceanic activity have had in Japan: effects that remind us again how vulnerable is all human life on this earth, and how unsustainable have become many of the economic and power generation systems the modern world relies on.

Last Monday, as I waited with friends at Charlottesville train station for the train to Washington DC, we watched as a mile-long freight train bearing double-stacked forty-foot containers from around the world trundled slowly past. As always, there were containers with markings from China, from Norway, from Arab countries– from who knows where!– rolling through bucolic central Virginia. We are one world, tied by commerce and the activities of financiers and warmakers as much as by human concern.
Yesterday, scrolling through some of the photos from Japan, I saw stacks of forty-foot containers that the force of the tsunami had scattered like children’s toys. I saw video clips of the tsunami’s waves pushing whole large buildings and towering ships effortlessly through the streetscapes and cities, leaving in their wake matchwood, overturned cars, and some burning rubble.
For the people there, it must have been like Doomsday. (For many thousands of them, it was Doomsday.) It must have been like the WW-II firebombing of Tokyo. And now, a second Hiroshima, a second Nagasaki threaten in Japan.
In distant Egypt, February 11 saw the departure of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, following in Ben Ali’s footsteps as he acceded both to the massively expressed desire of the people that he depart and to the last-minute intervention of the military that indeed, if their position in society was to be saved at all, the president must depart.
Since then, Egypt’s 83-million-strong society has seen a resumption of real politics. The various forces behind the popular democracy movement have maintained their pressure, forcing the military council to dismiss the Mubarak-era prime minister as well and to initiate some accountability measures against the Mubaraks and some of their key hangers-on.
Elements of the military and the police have pushed back. But now, in Egypt, there is real politics and real, large-scale negotiations among different social groups taking place. There is still some reactionary violence from elements of the old guard– including the shocking violence launched against participants in the Women’s Day demonstration in mid-week. But that haunting cry of “Salmiyan! Salmiyan!” (Peacefully! Peacefully!) that rang throughout Tahrir Square in the lead-up to February 11 has continued to guide the actions of the democrats and many of the actions of the military as well.
Real, popular politics in Egypt. This is huge.
People often talk about Israel’s position with regard to the Palestinians as being one of Apartheid– and the risk that the little areas run by the so-called “Palestinian Authority” might become (or already are) like Bantustans. I have come to think this maps the concept incorrectly. If Israel has been running an Apartheid system– that is, one that systematically denies a meaningful political voice to people who are not from the Chosen Race– then I think it has done so at a broad regional level; and until recently both Egypt and Jordan were the key Bantustans within this system. Now, BophuthatswanaEgypt has fallen. This is truly huge, and will continue to affect the political complexion of the whole region in huge ways for the entire foreseeable future.
Yes, the exact course of the Egyptian revolution is still uncertain. But the deeply anti-democratic and repressive Humpty Dumpty of Egypt-as-Israel’s-Bantustan cannot be put together again.
As I’ve been writing here for the past couple of months now, what we are seeing today is the crumbling of the American imperium in the Middle East and thus– given the key role this region has played in U.S. military/imperial planning since the fall of the Soviet Union– also an implosion of American strategic power in the world that is occurring in real time, slowly, and (thanks to the amazing technology of news diffusion these days) almost before our very eyes.
The conflict in Libya has been the cause of a lot of concern and international discussion, especially over the past ten days, since Col. Qadhdhafi launched his counter-attack against the country’s rebels. What is happening in Libya is without a doubt extremely tragic. Probably many thousands of people have lost their lives in this conflict so far (and probably, too, the vast majority of those have been people from the opposition, whether actual fighters or simply people residing in opposition-held areas.)
Qadhdhafi has been putting down the uprising against him with great brutality. But it should also be pointed out that large portions of the opposition movement against him have not been following the policy of “Salmiyan! Salmiyan!” They invaded his armories and took up arms against him. I understand the depth of their grievances– and the amazing allure that this amazing and new “opportunity” to emulate their brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia and topple their own dictator must have had for them. But their insurrection seemed ill-planned, haphazard, and dangerous from the beginning. They did not understand, as the many much more cautious and above all well-organized democracy activists in Egypt did that you can’t just mess around with dictatorial power, tweak it, and hope for the best: Before you challenge it seriously, you should have a solid, well-considered plan for how you deal with, above all, the different elements of the military and the security forces. You need to have a good understanding of how the various elements of the security forces hang together (or not), and a plan for how to appeal to the majority of their members. You need to have a good understanding of the different forces in your own, democratic coalition, and how they can best work together. You need to be able to agree on a mass-based approach, and have the discipline to stick to that plan.
In Libya, sadly, none of those elements of success seemed to be present. In Libya, sadly, the popular movement that grew up so rapidly from early February on had little recent, broad, in-country experience of opposition activities to build on. And the opposition was, from the get-go, notably weak in the national capital, Tripoli, which allowed Qadhdhafi to consolidate and regroup his forces there and to present the opposition as almost an “Eastern Libya separatist movement.”
In western countries, the voices of above all that unrepentant (but always loud) bunch of people, the liberal hawks, have been calling stridently for military action (in the form of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’.) For nearly all members of the US elite, being “against” Muammar Qadhdhafi has always been as easy and popular as being “against” Saddam Hussein once was– and most western liberals are no different in this. Indeed, on this occasion they have been notably more belligerent than the U.S. military itself and defense Secretary gates.
I confess I have found the incitement and support that characters as diverse as Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowksi, NPR “uber-strategist” Andy Carvin, and Al-Jazeera have given to Libya’s ragtag opposition movement to veer between the misguided, the ill-considered, and the extremely irresponsible. Just because mass popular uprisings succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt in displacing wildly unpopular dictators, why would anyone imagine that a much more poorly organized, more poorly focused– and above all directly violent– opposition movement could succeed in a country with a very different level of sociopolitical development?
(Also regarding Malinowski, what on earth happened to the self-restraint activists and leaders of human rights movements have always placed on themselves when it comes to making political pronouncements? The direct politicization of HRW’s work that Malinowski has engaged in strikes me as profoundly bad for the organization.)
What is happening in Libya these days as Qadhdhafi’s forces rampage violently eastward along the coast reasserting their control is really depressing. What’s more, if– as now seems probably– he succeeds in retaking the whole of the country, then his presence there between Tunisia and Egypt will be a constant irritant for the increasingly democratic regimes in both those countries, and will most likely block for a number of further years the kind of regionwide economic integration that North Africa so desperately needs.
But Libya’s population is, after all, only 6.5 million people. It’s a demographically small country– only a little more populous than the number of Jewish Israelis in Israel. The big country in the region is still, as always, Egypt; and it is in Egypt that the region’s history will primarily be made over the years ahead.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the family-dominated little countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council– and the family-dominated big country of Saudi Arabia– are all experiencing strains from the Arab Spring, with the strains being felt most acutely of all right now by the Khalifas of Bahrain. Bahrain seems to have a resilient and smart opposition movement, deeply rooted in the country’s majority Shiite population. It is truly exquisite to see the strain that movement’s activities have been causing for the U.S. military, which has a massive naval base right there on the island…
The Gulf countries and Libya are all, of course, important to the world economy because of their role as exporters of oil and gas (though Bahrain per se is not a big exporter.) So oil prices have, in general, been rising– but unstable. The tsunami in Japan, for its part, has not yet contributed at pressure on oil prices– just the opposite, since the tsunami has caused the closing of several big Japanese refineries and considerable disruptions in the country’s normally humming manufacturing systems. But doubtless as Japan picks itself up and rebuilds, the demand for electricity will rise again– and there will be considerable doubts about returning to the country’s previous strong reliance on nuclear power generation.
So the “big” lessons from the events of the past two months currently seem mixed. The military power of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain proved themselves incapable of beating back the challenges from the democracy movements– or, more precisely, ill-suited to beating back the challenge posed by a smart, disciplined, and deliberately nonviolent democracy movement.
In Libya, the regime has been able to muster and use military force against oppositionists who were neither as disciplined nor as nonviolent. (In Yemen, the situation has been extremely complex, with many crosscutting currents in the opposition movement, and a lot of different things going on in the different parts of that country’s mountainous domains. I note, however, that what happens in relatively populous and deeply impoverished Yemen is very important to the stability of neighboring Saudi Arabia.)
So military force has not yet been rendered irrelevant or revealed as counter-productive. One thing that does seem clear from Libya, however, is that the United States’ military-industrial complex has nothing like either the capacity or the appetite to intervene militarily that it would have had ten years ago. Imagine, back in 2001, if there had been an uprising against Qadhdafi such as we have seen over this past month: The liberal hawks and neocons in Washington would have succeeded very speedily in winning a policy of military intervention. So at least some lessons about military and political realism have finally– at great cost– been learned in Washington.

2 thoughts on “Two months of tumult: Pointers for the global tomorrow

  1. Domza

    Good to have your thoughts on Libya at last, Helena.
    You say: “Probably many thousands of people have lost their lives in this conflict so far” and that these dead have been opposition democracy activists. “Probably” is an admission that you don’t have evidence.
    Actually, you are flying in the face of information that is visible in photographs, and you are imagining other information that isn’t there, thereby selling the pass to the same “liberal hawks” that you then immediately start complaining about.
    So why is it good to have your thoughts? Because with you as a benchmark it is possible to imagine what is the furious consensus in the USA. From here, the distance between JWN and liberal hawks is not discernable.
    For Africans this is a very dangerous time. Africa stands to be “underdeveloped” (in the Walter Rodney sense) all over again.

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