The Triumphant Rebels burn Kaddafi’s Image and his Green Book!
Can the Emerging Coalition Govern Democratically?
Although I understood and sympathized with the Libyan people’s grievances – which gave impetus to the mass movement that is sweeping away the dictatorial Gadhafi regime – early on, I am not among those who are convinced that a secular democracy will emerge in the aftermath. Since there is no institutional or ideological basis for such a development, chances are this will prove to be wishful thinking. Libya is a largely tribal society that was traditionally ruled by sheiks and chiefs who view the world from an Islamic perspective – which means their heads are stuck in the Middle-Ages.
These people entered the modern world through anti-democratic European colonial rule, where the people had no say in governing the country, and they transitioned to autocratic rule under police state conditions in which the practice of pluralistic politics with competing parties was forbidden. That has been their history during the entire post-independence period. Therefore the critical question is: On what foundation is a modern secular democracy to be built?
The nature of violent revolutionary change creates the conditions for the rise of a dictatorship in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. The revolutionary movement destroys existing institutions of authority in the process of seizing power, therefore the first task of the revolutionaries is to restore order and avoid chaos. While they themselves are the source of the instability, once revolutionaries take power their goals change radically and the tactics they employed to seize power must now be ruthlessly suppressed.
To consolidate the gains of the revolutionary struggle, the maintenance of law and order must be the first priority. The lights must be on, the water pumps working, the economy must be functional, and the distribution of its fruits more democratic. In the instable conditions following the violent seizure of power, dictatorship is more often than not the only way these things can be achieved.
That’s why many of those who supported the 1917 Russian Revolution were surprised and bewildered by the dictatorial practices implemented by the Bolsheviks. No one expressed this feeling more poignantly than Emma Goldman in her revelatory book “My Disillusionment in Russia,” a text pro-Soviet Marxists choose to ignore. Yet she identified the flaws in the emerging Communist order in post-revolutionary Russian that would bring about its collapse a half century later.
The experience of Iraq does not encourage hope for a democracy in Libya. I believe that what is being called “democracy” in Iraq will quickly degenerate into a tyranny of the majority Shiites over Sunnis once American forces leave. And the increasing cries of “Allah U Akbar” heard on the streets of Tripoli, strongly suggest that the road to democracy in Libya will be no primrose path.
Although Khadafy has fairly discredited himself on the question of the danger posed by Islamic Jihadists by blaming everything on Al Qaeda, trying to justify his tyrannical behavior by arguing that he was the last line of defense against them taking over Libya, there is more than a little truth to his claim. As I have written for ten years now, the secular military strongmen have been the main deterrent to the Jihadists in the Muslim world
Beginning with a critique of the Bush Administration’s rationale for invading Iraq “The Iraq Attack: Bush’s March of Folly,” I argued that Sadam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were not allies the way the Bushmen were arguing in order to justify the Iraq invasion; rather they represent polar opposites in their vision of how Muslim societies should be governed. Thus, given the repressive regimes run by these military men, Islamic organizations were forced underground and consequently we have no way of knowing the extent of their popular appeal. But in the free flowing political environment created with the fall of Mummar we shall soon see. Until further notice, I’m down with what Mellin told Snellin: “Ain’t no tellin!” Anything can happen.
One of the unpleasant truths we have learned from the fall of Sadam Hussein is that in a country like Iraq, where there are serious ethnic and religious divisions that could erupt in conflict, it may require a military strongman like Sadam to hold it all together and avoid the chaos of internecine strife. For instance, under Sadam women were the freer than anywhere else in the Arab world, and there was no violent religious conflict. The Christian community was far better off (see “Christmastime In Bagdad” and “Why some Egyptian Women Support Mubarak” on this blog) It can also be credibly demonstrated that it was a lot safer in Pakistan when General Pervez Musharif was running that country. (see The Trouble With Pakistan” on this blog) In fact, it is fair to say that everywhere these military strong men have been removed the Islamist rapidly grows in power and influence – violence and chaos soon follow.
Given the fact that Libya is composed of 140 tribes, along with an organized Jihadist movement, removing a strongman like Khadafy who, through a system of sticks and carrots, rewarding those who support him and punishing those who don’t, managed to construct a workable system for governing, it is highly probable that the new rulers will find it necessary to impose order with the coercive forces of state power.
The critical question is: Can the ruling coalition that emerges from this turmoil actually muster the resources to govern. If they can’t disaster will ensue, the country will fall apart, and then the question of whether removing Khadafy from power was a good thing will be on everybody’s mind. One of the things that will complicate any attempt to govern is a failure to keep the rebel coalition together.
The nature of mass movements is such that its constituents are diverse and have different interests; they are united by a common enemy. But once that enemy is defeated the difference between factions in the movement is magnified. That’s why civil wars often follow national liberation struggles. All the factions in a popular front agree on the paramount objective, defeating their mutual oppressor. But once that objective been achieved the contradictions between factions sharpen. How to resolve these contradictions peacefully and forge a working coalition that can actually govern, is the paramount problem facing the new leadership of Libya.
Harlem, New York
August 24, 2011