The Arab Spring Trudges Along

9 November, 2011

I emerge from the Cave of Blogging Hiatus to offer what will hopefully be a brief take on recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus primarily on countries that have kicked the ancien regime to the curb, and will perhaps return to others- Syria, Yemen, Bahrain- at a later time.

Muammar al-Qadhafi’s capture and summary execution provided one of the most dramatic conclusions to one of North Africa’s most entrenched dictatorships. However, it is by no means the end of the Libyan’s struggle. The country now faces three extremely daunting challenges: disarming and demobilizing the rebel forces, building state institutions and civil society in a country where most of the populace has literally known nothing but Qadhafi and his jamahiriyya philosophy, and promoting national reconciliation. While all of these are problematic, the first and the latter are what worry me the most. The insecurity of Qadhafi’s ammo dumps has been well documented, but what’s even more ominous are the signs of deepening divisions between political and military actors from East and West Libya. While the revolt and political fronts initially began in the eastern areas of Darnah and Benghazi, it was the Western fighters from the Nafusa mountains and the coastal city of Misratah who saw the bloodiest combat, endured the worst sieges, and ultimately did the bulk of the fighting. Regional differences were long present in Qadhafi’s Libya due to the Colonel’s calculating political moves, and it remains to be seen whether or not all of the country will truly adhere to the political transition developed in Benghazi. Overcoming this will probably prove to be the biggest challenge for the country, and will likely influence how the first two challenges play out.

Also, as an aside, it was probably the worst decision of Qadhafi’s life to flee in the direction of a contingent of fighters from Misratah. After what he did to that city every day for more than two months, he probably got off easy.

I am equal parts pessimistic and optimistic about Egypt. On one hand, the various revolutionary parties have learned that getting rid of Mubarak was like cutting out a cancerous mole only to discover that the cancer has metastasized throughout the body. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (abbreviated as SCAF from henceforth) has played an incredibly cynical game of instituting policies harsher than Mubarak’s, including detaining bloggers who question its commitment to reform, criminalizing protest, and dragging its feet on reforming the country’s police force as well as creating electoral laws that read like calculus equations in their complexity and trying to structure itself as the supreme arbiter of power within the new constitution. With the first of three rounds of parliamentary elections coming up at the end of November, it really does remain to be seen what political forces will take charge in Egypt, and if so, to what extent SCAF will actually allow them to govern.

Enough with the pessimism. If there’s one thing that makes me optimistic, it’s the indomitable character of the Egyptian people. Getting rid of Mubarak rekindled the stubborn determination of Um al-Dunya (the Mother of the Earth, as Egyptians sometimes refer to themselves), and simply put, there are too many people who refuse to go back to the old system or worse. The Egyptian people were proud of their army for refusing to open fire on protesters (as they were allegedly ordered to do by Mubarak’s interior minister, Habib al-Adly), but the longer SCAF stays in power, the more their reputation loses its luster. While the generals seem to be intractable now, they will eventually lose the consent to govern. I’m hoping that the Egyptians prove me right on this one.

While the media spotlight has since turned elsewhere, Tunisia continues to find its footing after overthrowing Ben Ali in January. Recent elections resulted in En Nahda (an Islamist party) winning a plurality of seats on a commission tasked with writing a new constitution. While pundits tend to freak out at the term Islamist, En Nahda has seemingly bucked that trend by announcing its intent to form a coalition with two of the most prominent liberal parties. I’m hoping that En Nahda models itself after Turkey’s AKP party, which so far has done a decent job of balancing religion with governance. The country faces challenges- rural unemployment, which was one of the major catalysts for the revolution, remains high- but it’s much easier to be optimistic about Tunisia.

So there’s my take on how things are shaping up so far. Regardless of the final outcome, this has been a hell of an inspiring thing to watch.


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