While the People’s Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt was largely non-violent, the revolution in Libya may turn more violent as the last of the palace guard circle around Colonel Qaddafi, his family and a small number of people with tribal ties to him.
Somewhat too late in the day, the U.N. Security Council demanded an embargo on arms sales to Libya. However, the country has more arms than it can use. The Security Council also requested the International Criminal Court to investigate if there have been war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Libya as well as freezing the foreign bank holdings of the Qaddafi family.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, like the Commission on Human Rights, had been silent on human rights violations in Libya for years. In fact, the then Libyan Ambassador, Najat al-Hajjaji, a former wife of one of the Qaddafi sons had chaired the Commission on Human Rights in 2003. There is now discussion of expelling Libya from the Human Rights Council, however the Libyan representatives in both New York and Geneva have resigned in order to join the opposition. At this stage, Colonel Qaddafi is not interested in diplomatic symbols.
The representatives of the European Union are worried, especially of a possible migration of Africans through Libya towards Europe. Colonel Qaddafi had signed an agreement that he would try to control migration through Libya toward Europe, and he had been given speed boats from Europe to help him in his task. The Europeans are also worried about energy supplies from Libya, although Libya represents a very small – some 2 per cent – of energy to Europe, easily replaced from other sources. However, revolution in Libya and unrest in other parts of the Arab world has moved oil prices upward, and they are not likely to go down soon. NATO planners are meeting, reflecting the same worries as those of the EU officials.
The EU and US officials remind one of the aristocrats watching the French Revolution from safety in London or Belgium. They had not seen that the people were getting tired of the contempt in which they were held, nor that there was a rise of an educated middle class that could take care of itself without the nobles and the clergy. Likewise many in the Arab world can do without the kings and tribal chiefs, without the higher military officers who played a role of nobles and without the preaching of the Islamic clergy.
Today’s People’s Revolution, like that of France in 1789, is the victory of an educated middle class bringing along with it in its current a mass of the unemployed, small merchants, regular soldiers often from the rural farming milieu which has little prospered from modernization.
The question now is how will the young and educated middle class in the Arab world be able to structure a new society based on relative equality and justice. In each country, there are remains of the old society with some power, some skills, and a continuing sense of their own importance. We have seen in Tunisia how some of the old structure wanted to continue in power though this was met with continuing street protests.
Creation of new structures in a society is never easy. Both Tunisia and Egypt face an influx of workers fleeing Libya. Just as the French Revolution did not have only friends abroad, the People’s Revolution of the Arab world has more sceptical observers saying “what next?” than friends.
The governments, such as those of Algeria, Morocco and Jordan where only the first shocks have been felt are promising “reforms” or “bread and circuses” but probably too little and too late.
The People’s Revolution is just that, the rise of a new people, not yet structured into a real social class. It has some leaders but rarely on a national level, and interest groups are only partly structured. This is not chaos except in the sense described by the classical Greek thinker Hesiod who saw chaos, creativity, and transformation working together. For Hesiod, chaos was not confusion but a richly creative space which flowed from the dual cosmic forces of heaven and earth or as in Chinese philosophy, from Yin and Yang. From this chaos comes new and more mature organization, one with more complexity and greater adequacy for dealing with the challenges of life.
Thus we need to find ways to support the People’s Revolution, to keep an eye open for counter-revolutionary activities and to watch closely as the next structures are put into place.
Rene Wadlow is a Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.