Libya on the edge

by Rhodri C. Williams

It remains impossible to resist commenting on the amazing cascade of democratic uprisings convulsing the Middle East right now. In all awareness that these lie far beyond the strict purview of this blog (there are undeniably land issues, but they hardly play a central role), I just can’t quite believe that I’m witnessing this type of transformation all over again.

I hear tonight that Ghaddafi’s remaining time in “office” might be a matter of hours and I’m suddenly back to the Macalester College cafeteria one morning in December 1989 when Neville Blakemore told me the Berlin Wall had fallen and I almost dropped my tray. Having at last finished David Fromkin’s Peace to End All Peace a few weeks ago, I had just begun to feel like I had finally arrived at a sound understanding of how the modern Middle East was patched together – and now the rug is gloriously being swept out from under my feet.

The situation in Libya is horrifying, but the persistence of demonstrators throughout the country is all the more inspiring for Mr. Ghaddafi’s apparently limitless brutality. And as usual, some of the most satisfying revenge seems to be occurring online from a tech savvy generation no one seems to have dreamed existed in the Middle East – not least in the form of a hilarious video by an Israeli musician (!) that skewers the dictator’s buffoonish rants.

From a human rights perspective, one of the most interesting things about the current ructions is that they may after all issue from George W. Bush’s project to transform the Middle East. On OpenDemocracy, Shadi Mokhtari points out that Bush broke a taboo surrounding human rights discussions in the region – but not through what he said but what he did. In essence, once Arab leaders found themselves forced to condemn Abu Ghraib, it was impossible to keep the spotlights averted from the other dungeons that had kept them in power for decades. Where it ends, nobody knows…

10 responses to “Libya on the edge

  1. I will not be an underwriter to a suggestion that the Bush administration and the U.S. have initiated some kind of democratic springtime in the Arab world. Human rights aspects are hardly the guiding principles for whatever policies have been adhered to and endorsed by the west over the years. The suffering among people in the nations of the Middle East is intimately connected with a long and tragic story of malicious and insensitive meddling in the governance of the region by the western powers. Colonel Ghaddafi is apparently mad, but how many of these autocratic rulers in the region have not been supported and sustained by the west over the course of the past century? It was only a brief while ago that Colonel Ghaddafi was let in from the cold and invited to the VIP table of the western powers. Representing the potentially most oil rich nation in Africa, the governments of the insatiable oil consuming nations in the west, obviously regarded him and his regime as the ultimate guarantee of stability in their eyes. In its policy especially in the Middle East, U.S. policymakers have preferred force, not only through invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in the region. In the Middle East, every dictatorship and pseudo-monarchy has been sustained by America. The object has often been to smash or deter nationalism and democracy. In the latest issue of Fortune magazine there is a very telling coverage of the way U.S. policy plays out towards the region, with over $100 billion of weapons sales to places like Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia just over the past two years. This brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the region and not least over the flow of oil and oil profits. The victims of this western backed state dictatorial approach have been mostly Muslims. The revolt in the Arab world is not merely against resident dictators but against an economic state tyranny, with a heavy historical burden on Great Britain and subsequently its successor dominant power in the region, the U.S., which have ensured that these countries have been reduced to mere oil providers and/or vast sweatshops, with large swaths of the their populations earning less than $2 a day. The people’s triumphs in some of the Middle Eastern nations are signs of the cracks in these policies. Policies which are not morally acceptable will never be sustainable in the long run. We in the western affluent part of the world under the wise and truly humane stewardship of the U.S. need to start shaping a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as equal nations in the world, not as nations on top of the world.

  2. Hi Anders,
    Very forcefully argued but I don’t think we disagree on any of the broad strokes – as the Mokhtari article clarifies, the Abu Ghraib effect on the current Arab democracy movement was entirely unintentional on the part of the United States. Its not that people were swayed by Bush’s rhetoric, but rather that the universal condemnation of US abuse of detainees in Iraq laid bare a good bit of hypocrisy on the part of some US-supported regimes.

  3. Anders Linde

    Hello Rhodri,
    The governments of the region are all tainted by the nasty traits of authoritarianism, blind brutal force, repression and intolerance. Very far from the liberal enlightened idealistic world of the altruistic thinkers of western human rights thought. My main point is that the regimes of the region are either the direct illegimate extensions of or the abhorrent resulting nightmares of an overwhelming military might that is under continuous and undeterred support by mainly the U.S. You would not have these horrific regimes in power, if it were not for the military shock and awe politics and the economic self-promoting interests underpinning their detestable rule by the greedy business interests and the geopolitical game plans promulgated by the dominant policy makers of the west. My hope is that the most powerful nation on earth, of which I am a true admirer in terms of its original and humane founding ideas as a compassionate republic by the people and for the people, will not let its greatness as a beacon of human rights ideas, be contaminated and overrun by the dark forces that are pathologically immersed in and mentally engulfed by the call of the sirens for short term economic profits or the false glory of militaristic megalomania. World peace, equal opportunities and human harmony among all the various cultures and peoples on this planet of ours, very much depend on the genuine humaneness and wise stewardship of that great republic out there in the west. It is a crucial crossroads to be passed.
    My regards,

  4. Indeed, would that most average Americans had any idea about the effect that the votes they cast have on the rest of the world! For what its worth, most observers seem to give Obama a lot of credit for what seems to be a policy of subtle support for the protesters – not so overt as to feed accusations of neo-imperialism but not so cautious as to be ineffective.

  5. Erik Petersson

    Libya has one of the strangest land registries that I have seen in my career. In 1986 a law was adopted that rendered all prior land registrations null and void. In 1988 a time limit of two years was set to register any land holdings. Permissible land holdings were limited in area. All land unregistered after two years would accrue to the state. But people did not register in time (possibly in order not to loose “excessive” holdings). The time limit was extended and is still running.

    So who has the right to use a certain land plot? No one knows.

  6. Interesting, but I’m not sure if its so unusual, sadly! It sounds like an over the top version of the system many African countries preserved from colonial times of keeping land not held in formal title readily available for development and patronage purposes by labeling it ‘public’.

  7. Erik Petersson

    The Libyan laws were introduced as a part of a revolutionary agenda, not colonial, but may in effect be very similar, of course. Rather different from the ex-soviet world.

    Anyway, will you be back in Stockholm anytime soon?

  8. Yeah, colonial concepts turned out to have a surprising level of utility for some revolutionaries… Back in Stockholm mid-next week, Copacabana?

  9. Erik Petersson

    look in your mailbox for my reply!


  10. Pingback: Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 1: Benchmarking human rights | TerraNullius

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