Mark LeVine: The Shifting Zeitgeist of the 'Arab Spring'

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

...Libya has until now served as the polar opposite of the Egyptian and Tunisian experience – its long-serving strongman has refused to leave, and his deployment of large-scale deadly violence provoked protesters to armed revolt.

But Libya did not begin as an armed insurrection. Protests began as a response to the arrest in Benghazi of Fathi Teribl, a well-known human rights activist in Benghazi.

There was violence against regime institutions, with protesters setting fire to police stations and cars, much as Egyptians burned down the headquarters of the National Democratic Party in the revolt's early days.

But the level of anger and riot-like violence that erupted so quickly in Libya was not likely the cause of the overall turn to armed revolt.

In Tunisia and Egypt the ruling systems were bigger than the rulers themselves. Their survival and interests were not completely tied to the leaders who became the symbols against which the people's anger was directed.

And so, at a certain point, Ben Ali and Mubarak could be sacrificed in order to preserve the system, or more precisely the power and wealth of elites whom it was constructed to benefit.

Publicly this was seen as a triumph of democratic protest, but particularly in Egypt, the reality of the system's continuity becomes clearer each day.

Yet in Libya the system has long centred around Gaddafi and his family. There is no larger political order that could successfully push him out to preserve itself, as occurred in its neighbours to the east and west.

Even more than the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe, Gaddafi is the Libyan state, a set of institutions which he's done little to develop in his four decades in power despite - indeed, because of - the enormous wealth generated by the country's oil revenues.

As one former OPEC official put it in a BBC interview, Gaddafi is the personal embodiment of the "petroleum curse" that has long plagued the Arab world....

Several commentators and analysts, such as Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman, Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman, and Paul Miller of the National Defense University, have criticised president Obama's warning of imminent mass slaughter by Gaddafi's forces (for example, Obama adviser Dennis Ross claimed 100,000 people faced imminent death if Gaddafi conquered Benghazi).

They argue that however brutal the violence deployed by the government, the kinds of large-scale civilian killings seen in the Balkan civil wars or Rwanda have not occurred in Libya, nor have they been in the offing....

But this fact does not mean that large-scale violence, whether on the part of protesters-turned-rebels or the West that has intervened ostensibly to protect civilians, will reduce the number of Libyan civilians killed in the conflict.

As University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes has crucially pointed out, the most successful phase of the Libyan uprising was the massive nonviolent resistance that liberated a number of key Libyan cities back in February, after which popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments.

It was then that important aides and ambassadors resigned, while soldiers defected or refused to attack protesters.

In particular, Zunes argues that it was only after the rebellion became more violent that its "progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya."...

A century and a half ago, a debt and finance-dominated global economic system helped destroy both the already weakened Ottoman Empire and the fast-rising Egypt of Muhammad Ali and his successors.

Today it has become the most effective tool of controlling restive countries and citizens from the American heartland to the African or Argentinian plains.

The momentary solidarity between protesters in Tahrir Square and Madison, Wisconsin points to the common plight of average working people world-wide.

The greatest gift bestowed by contemporary globalisation would be both a greater awareness of this situation and the means and desire to act collectively against it.

The people of the Arab world have begun to do their part.

What is necessary now is for citizens in the West to join the fray by taking on their militarised and finance-dominated governments with the same passion as their counterparts from Tunisia to Bahrain have taken on their autocratic systems....

comments powered by Disqus