The end of Qaddafi and the future of the Middle East
On the 21 August, 2011 edition of Fareed Zakaria GPS, former spy and journalist John Miller responded to a question by Zakaria about the failure of Al Qaeda to bring about a revolution in the Middle East with one of those lines that is destined to characterize the Arab Spring. Miller told Zakaria that “It took some kids with cell phones three weeks to accomplish what Al Qaeda couldn’t do in 22 years.”
Specifically, Miller was referring to the overthrow in Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime dictator of the country and their current prisoner. For all the hyperbole of Miller’s comment, he captured two extraordinary features of the Arab Spring and other recent revolutions in the Muslim world. The first, that we would not have an Arab Spring without the groundbreaking innovations in communications technology of the last five years; and second, that the Arab world has absolutely rejected the models of revolution advocated by Al Qaeda and the like. The Arab Spring has brought and will continue to bring significant benefits to the Arab world; but these benefits must be weighed against the potential for serious harm that comes with more political and social freedom.
The date 21 August, 2011 will be important for another reason, too. It will probably go down in history as marking the eve of the downfall of the Arab world’s longest standing dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. And, as a bonus, will have been the first such Arab revolution that you can literally watch on television.
I sat transfixed as CNN spoke with a reporter inside a hotel in Tripoli that featured men with very large guns walking around in the background. Al Jazeera, amazingly, was broadcasting a live discussion with the Qaddafi while there was gunfire outside his palace. History literally unfolded on television, on twitter, and on the Internet.
The benefits of the Arab Spring for Tunisian and Egyptian citizens include more political freedom, more freedom of expression, and an opportunity for economic and political reform along liberal lines. No longer are citizens at risk of arrest or worse if they protest or voice their grievances; in this context, it is an amazing hallmark of the Arab Spring that we have not seen anywhere near the levels of violence or riots that we have seen recently in the United Kingdom. The fall of the Mubarak regime was not accompanied by looting or much civil disorder, either.
At the same time, for example, in Egypt, we are seeing signs that freedom of expression has had and will continue to have its drawbacks. It is hard to deny that tensions between Israel and Egypt have increased dramatically in the last month, largely as a function of an Israeli over-reaction to Hamas attacks. But this is the new world of the Middle East; no longer are Egyptians putting themselves at risk when they speak out against Israel. More importantly, we are beginning to see what many have suspected all along; Egyptians will demonstrate against Israel whenever possible, quite possibly even at moments that lack the legitimacy of the current protests. The fear is that Egyptians have much less tolerance for Israel without the Mubarak regime and therefore the region is necessarily less stable. The evolution of the relationship between Egypt and Israel will be the central theatre that determines, for many, whether the Arab Spring is an event to be cheered or regretted.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the tension will be between reform and revolution. We know that vicious regimes like the one in Syria have attempted to at least co-opt a discourse that puts moderate reform at the centre, but it is utterly obvious that the Syrian regime is neither capable of satisfying the protestors in that country, or, most likely, of enacting even those modest reforms the regime has proposed. Other than Syria, it doesn’t appear any other regimes are going to be toppled outright.
And of course there is one very large factor which has been all but ignored by the mainstream media, but which is the key wild card in the Arab Spring. We do not know what will happen at the United Nations General Assembly in the fall with respect to the possibility of a resolution attempting to recognize a Palestinian state, but I am interested in the future of the Palestinian people for the following reason: while Al Qaeda has proven unable to motivate and retain support for their radical program, Hamas and Hezbollah appear to have been able to. Hamas, of course, is the legally elected representative of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. Many governments around the world classify Hamas as a terrorist group, and do so rightly in my view (the United Nations, and some important countries such as Russia, do not). Hamas and Al Qaeda are more different than they are similar, of course; but they represent the same test case for the Arab world. Will the Palestinian people, if they are given the chance, reject the violence of Hamas and join with other Arabs in seeking democratic reform?
We are living in a world that is changing, being taken apart, and in many ways unraveling. At the same time, new connections and new norms and ways of life are penetrating the world; the logic of globalization and the flat, crowded connectivity of it all, noted by Thomas Friedman, are becoming irresistible. The Internet has done more to contribute to these changes that we can calculate, and communication technology has changed human society more dramatically in the last ten years than probably any other single innovation in history, and at a staggering pace. The Arab Spring is a product of these amazing changes, and ‘kids with smartphones’ will continue to change the world. Our hope must be that the world that emerges is a better, safer, and more just world than the one that is disappearing.
|John Mullin (@john_m_mullin) is a co-founder of Thought Out Loud. He currently lives in Peterborough, Ontario and North Bay, Ontario. He writes most often about politics, current events, culture, and history. He will be moving to Kuwait in September of 2011 for two years, where his Masters in Canadian history will prove useful in teaching Grade 5 math, English and science.|