Thursday, March 24, 2011

Arab World in Flames

by Richard Crerws
As dawn broke on the morning of December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohammad Bouazizi headed out onto the streets of Sidi Bouzid with his cart of fresh fruits and vegetables. He had stocked it up late the night before for about $200 in credit, a debt he planned to pay back in the evening out of his sales for the day. He hoped to make about $20 for his day's labor, money that would go to support his mother, uncle, and younger sibs, and contribute to his younger sister's expenses at the local university.

Mohammad was well known throughout the town as an affable, hard-working, and honest young man. He often gave fruits and vegetables to the very poor of the town who could not afford to pay him.

Mohammad was proud of the livelihood he had put together for himself. The unemployment rate in Sidi Bouzid was 30%; Mohammad did not have any special skills or training--he had been working part time since the age of 11, and had dropped out of high school at 17 to work full time. At 26 his lifelong hope of completing high school and going to the university was growing dim. He felt oblidged to assure that his family had food and shelter, and he wanted to do the best he could to see that his younger siblings got good educations. His main life dream now--for himself--was to save enough to buy an old pick-up truck to expand his fruit and vegetable vending business.

A couple of hours into the morning, Mohammad was approached by a contingent of police--two males officers and a female sargeant. They knew Mohammad. They could see that his cart was well stocked; they knew he had a thriving business. They demanded to see his vendor's permit. He explained, as they already knew, that he did not have one. He reminded them--which they also already knew--that he was not required to have one to ply his trade through the streets as he did. Because he did not have a vendor's permit, they demanded a bribe of $50 saying that if he did not pay it, they would confiscate his cart and stock.

An argument ensued. A crowd gathered. In the course of the argument, the sargeant struck Mohammad across the face; then the two officers beat him with their fists and feet and clubs, and then the three police left, taking Mohammad's cart and fruits and vegetables with them.

Mohammad was distraught. He had lost his cart and stock and income for the day. But most distressing of all was having been struck in the face by a woman, and in front of his friends and neighbors. That, to a young Arab male, was a terrible insult and humiliation.

Mohammad walked to the town hall a few blocks away to complain to the mayor. The mayor was in, but refused to see him. Whereupon Mohammad purchased a can of kerosene and paint thinner from a nearby store, walked to the town square, dowsed himself with the flammable liquids, and set himself ablaze.

Mohammad died in the hospital about a week later. But the flame he had ignited grew until outrage and rebellion engulfed the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. They demanded that their long-standing dictators step down, and that fair, law-abiding, democratic institutions be set up.

Tunisia fell first. Then Egypt. And in several other countries, the rulers made liberalizing concessions. But in Libya, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi dug in. He was a wealthy man. He had been in power for 42 years, and had been stealing Libya's oil revenues. He had a personal fortune of some $35 billion stashed in banks overseas.

He also had a well trained, well equipped, and highly disciplined army and security force. Although many of his top-rank executives, army officers, and diplomats around the world defected and joined the rebel cause, Gaddafi sent his forces--including tanks, planes, helicopters, and all manner of modern military equipment--against the rag-tag, poorly equiped, and poorly organized rebel throngs. He threatened to take revenge against civilian populations that opposed him.

As slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians seemed imminent, the U.N. took action. It passed a resolution authorizing the use of all necessary force to protect the civilian populations of Libya. The U.S. thereupon led a coalition of European and Arab nations against Gaddafi. They grounded his airforce and demolished much of his military equipment and supplies.

As of late March, 2011, it seems likely that in the weeks to come, military, economic, and diplomatic pressure will force Gaddafi to relinquish power. What sort of government may then emerge in Libya is a very open question. There are no potential leaders or nascent political organizations waiting in the wings; Gaddafi has systematically suppressed, jailed, murdered, or driven into exile any opposition--however fledgeling--for several decades.

What is next for Libya in the way of government? Will some democratic processes really emerge? Or will another military dictator come to the fore, or a religious (Muslim) system, or some other? Or will the country disintegrate into tribal rivalries and ethnic disputes? That is the big question that lies ahead for Libya, and no one knows the answer.