Be Careful what You Wish for in North Africa

We have recently witnessed the death of the self-styled Colonel Gadaffi in Libya. A man who was universally despised throughout the western world. A man whose name was synonymous with terror & tyranny throughout the early years of my life. A despot who our intelligence services have led us to believe was involved in state-sponsored terrorism against Americans and other Westerners throughout the 1980s.

Following the revolutions in Tunisia & Egypt as well as the popular uprisings in some other Arab states that have become known as the “Arab Spring”, his fall from power and eventual death have been broadcast on 24 hour news channels around the globe, with almost pornographic interest in pictures of his (possible executed or lynched) body bringing the violent and repressive story of his rule and governance to an end, legal justice for his victims or their families no longer being available.

His removal from power, along with all other long-standing dictators in the region, will certainly be of long-term benefit for the populace of the country if the redistribution of oil wealth (started by Gadaffi but often used to buy loyalty from local clans rather than actually benefit the citizens) can be continued and extended to encompass the large numbers of young people present in the country. It is these young people, present in huge numbers and highly vocal and active throughout the region, who now have the power of peacemaker or warmonger, to modernise & develop or wallow in conservatism. At first glance, the use of Facebook & Twitter to co-ordinate demonstrations & protests which are then recorded on mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube, would tend to suggest that the large youth populations present in these countries want to live in modern, developed, wealthy societies. However, the removal of dictatorships is never without price, the power vacuum left behind will always be filled by competing factions, some of which will be conservative in nature. Not merely numerous, young people are also much easier to radicalise, especially when, after several years of freedom, their country appears more lawless, less prosperous and more influenced by foreigners than before.

The real risks to the stability of the region come not from the immediate political violence, which will likely occur sporadically throughout all the nations of the Arab & North Africa region who manage to overthrow their dictatorial yoke, but from the unrest that grows organically inside any society with large populations with no work, industry or prospects, feeding from the envy of money & opportunity so clearly present in the images being broadcast to them from our side of the development divide. Our role, as members of the developed world, as those with the resources to help, is to ensure that members of these societies are not left behind. We must ensure that these people are not exploited for cheap labour and left with nothing to show for the resources and services they sell us, be they oil, cotton or tourism. A balanced style of development is important to ensure a “have & have-not” hierarchy is not allowed to form. Industrial development is only a part of this. Free movement of money, goods and the mobility of labour both within and without both the nation and the region are possibly more important.

As powerful as statements like “only two modern democracies have ever been at war” are (UK & Finland, WW2 – a result of our treaty with the USSR, no shots fired), history is also littered with the shattered dreams of countless failed states after flawed political systems designed for incompatible cultural value systems have been thrust down from above onto unwilling local populations by foreign powers in order to secure spheres of influence, replacing explicit colonial power. The continued collapse of these regimes, mostly in Asia or South America, after revolutions from the opposite side of the political spectrum, only goes to show their unpopularity with large sections of the local population. Suggesting that a democratic system would by necessity be any less unpopular, given the amount of external aid often necessary in modernisation and the influence on government policy this implies, is at best foolish. This is not to suggest that democracy should be avoided because the populations concerned have no experience of it, I warn however, of the dangers of predicting the behaviour of people from differing cultural backgrounds and no history of contributing to foreign policy or “Realpolitik”.

One of the fundamental concepts inherent in the very foundation of democracy (the political system espoused by Western governments as the best, fairest and most desirable form available), is the concept of freedom of conscience. The idea that a person may have a differing view to yours and that both are equally valid. Complementary to this is the concept of freedom of expression, or “free speech”. No society call truly call itself a modern democracy without at least a basic semblance of these rights in law available to all its citizens. Criticism of another’s opinions and views as exercised under the above rights is another necessary liberty available to all citizens of democratic societies. Essential to all of the above freedoms is the security provided by the protection of the rule of law. This is not just important within nations but also between them.

The history of our freedom makes it no more valid than any other nation’s and our views no more important than theirs. People will always try to do the right thing for themselves and their families and loved ones, we should not be surprised if others do not agree with us about the right course of action and should not try to use bribery, blackmail and coercion to force them into doing as we please. Thats how we ended up with many of these dictators in the first place.

“Freedom of expression is the right of every natural person, even if a person chooses to behave irrationally, to express his or her insanity”

-M Gadaffi, The Green Book

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

As usual all comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as possible.

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