Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Happy New Year! 2011 in review

It’s been quite the year. Let me take you back in time and show you how the world changed – mostly for the better.

January and February saw most of Europe glued to its television screens as people in the Arab world joined together in open rebellion against the despots who have ruled the Magreb for decades. At the very beginning of the year we watched first Tunisians and then Egyptians throng the streets of their capitals in huge and unprecedented numbers. We watched in awe. By the 14th January, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali had resigned and he quickly fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab spring had been born. Within a month Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-serving strongman had suffered the same fate. Millions of people leaped up the ladder to democracy. What I think captivated the West so much was the sheer power of people. We hadn’t seen popular anger erupt like that since the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, long before I was born. We were fascinated by so much change.

As Winter turned to Spring, Japan was hit by an immense earthquake and tsunami – the strongest on record. Supply lines were destroyed and thousands of homes were destroyed when whole villages were washed away. As if that was not enough, it was not long before a new disaster unfolded. The tsunami had critically damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which soon began to leak radiation. Fears of meltdown and comparisons to Chernobyl resonated. Thousands more people were evacuated and, as other nuclear power-plants were shut-down due to public pressure, northern Japan started to suffer power cuts. Obviously, the disaster was awful for those whose lives were destroyed, but the real tragedy for the wider world might be the political shift away from nuclear power. This is sad, considering well-managed nuclear power production is one of the cleanest and greenest forms of energy. It’s bad name – which it had nearly lost – has now been reinforced by natural disaster and political failure.

In the same month, NATO launched its mission to protect civilians in Libya by creating a no-fly zone. Many warned that the problem was similar to that of Iraq in 2003 and that intervention would lead to the same disasterous consequences, which caused America to take a back-seat. Operations continued throughout the Summer, with NATO strikers disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s military capabilities in a bid to help the rebel fighters. Libya sunk into a deadly civil war.

April was gobbled up by the royal wedding – which rendered BBC News unbearable. Along side such important news the battles in Libya rumbled on. It seemed that the advantage switched sides almost daily – but the deathtoll mounted swiftly and steadily. As anger mounted against Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar Assad also saw increasing dissent on his streets. The military were sent in to cities, and have been engaged in running battles with peaceful protesters ever since.

May saw the Liberal Democrats destroyed by a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also exposed the worst of British political campaigning. It also saw the arrest, after 15 years on the run, of Ratko Mladic – the Bosnian Serb general who was responsible for the Srebrenicia Massacre of 1990 in which 8,000 died. He went to trial in the Hague, raising the possibility of some justice finally being served. Then there was the big one – the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks of 2001. He was killed by US marines in a raid on his compound in a military town in Pakistan. The location of the West’s most wanted man raised some eyebrows and the once forced-cosiness of American-Pakistani relations has completely disappeared, with the US doubting the loyalty of its key ally in the so-called War on Terror. News of the death spread a somewhatd disturbing joy in America and scenes of people partying at Ground Zero raised fears of revenge attacks. Even if the press and politicians mismanaged the event, Osama bin Laden is unlikely to be missed.

The Summer was dominated by a few major stories. Fighting in Libya and Syria continued, as NATO dropped more bombs and Gaddafi looked weaker and weaker. The quick and relatively peaceful ends of Tunisia and Egypt’s regimes seemed from a different age. Closer to home, the phone hacking scandal put an end to Britain’s most-read rag, The News of the World, whose reporters had hacked the voicemail messages of – well – everyone, but things really came to a head when it emerged that they had access the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager. Public outrage gave the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, no choice but to close the paper. It also lead to a review of the relationship between media moguls and politicians, the police’s relationship with journalists, and the standards of the press industry as a whole. The Leviston Inquiry into all this is ongoing. The media will never be the same again.

July and August were stressful months for Northern Europe, which was having a bad time of it anyway (see below). In July a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Brievik, set off a bomb in Oslo, the capital of Norway, before going on the rampage at a youth camp for young members of the Norwegian Labour Party. He killed 77 people. Amongst the horror, grief and anger, another emotion was present – surprise. The ‘War on Terror’ lead by America and Europe has concentrated so much on Islamic jihad that people could not believe that a European country had been attacked by a Christian native. It later emerged that Brievik had been protesting against the adoption of a multicultural society in Norway, and particularly the tolerance of Islam. This shocked the country, which prides itself on its acceptance and peacefulness. August saw violence erupt again, this time when several English cities witnessed mass riots and looting, reminding on lookers of the 1980s. The riots started as a protest in Tottenham, London against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in mysterious circumstances. Anger broke out into violence and the looting started. The police reacted poorly, and with a sense of hopelessness. It seems that people took this as an allowance to break the law, and over the next few days riots erupted all over London, as well as Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Although community leaders continued to blame the shooting, most of the rioters were just out to get free stuff and enjoy breaking the law. The Labour Party took the opportunity to do some cuts-bashing – blaming the lack of youth centres and job opportunities. The Tories responded by putting their tough-on-crime hats on, and got down to the business of putting people in prison. The political fall out was almost entertaining, but the violence was not. For four days the authorities had no control of the streets, and communities suffered arson and looting that destroyed homes and businesses. Whatever your political views, no one can disagree that these were sorry days for England.

Over the latter half of the year we were repeatedly shown the uselessness of the European Union as well as the incredible and unnerving power of the financial markets. European leaders repeatedly failed to reach an agreement to sort out the continent’s sovereign debt problems and save the Euro, but did manage to prevent complete collapse. Summit after summit ended in bitter political wrangling. Eventually the EU managed to force out the Greek Prime Minister, whose country’s debt was threatening to bring down the Euro. Many worried that the Union was showing too much control over the domestic politics of its member states, but the markets calmed. Not long after, the crisis claimed the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s maverick Prime Minister. The failings of the Euro had a silver lining after all. Both countries now have technocratic governments which are working to reduce their deficits. Although this state of affairs is democratically questionable, the markets seem a little happier. A deal to write-down some of Greece’s debt has also been reached, finally. However, the Euro is not safe. Talk of increasing fiscal unity and even a ‘two-speed’ Europe is both pleasing to the markets and terrifying to politicians. The Euro will (probably) survive 2012, but whether it is recognisable in a year’s time is anybody’s guess.

In Autumn the Arab spring was renewed. After the fall of Tripoli (Libya’s capital) into rebel control in August, the country was nearly free. However, Gadaffi loyalists continued to put up a bloody fight, especially from his stronghold of Bani Walid and his hometown of Sirte. It became clear that, to get anything resembling peace, Gadaffi had to be caught. Questions bounced around the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli: would he be found? would he be tried in Libya or at the Hague? was he even in the country. It was widely known that members of his family had fled into neighbouring Nigera, but no one knew if he had been among  them. However, in late October these questions proved futile. Sirte and Bani Walid fell, and Gadaffi was found by rebels hidng in a gutter in his hometown. He was killed in the chaos of his arrest (according to the rebels, although supporters say he was shot on purpose). The political arm of the rebel movement, the National Transitional Council (NTC) now had full control of the country. There is now a long road ahead – first to reconciliation and then to democracy. This may be harder for Libya than for other Arab countries, as it is deeply divided along tribal lines and because the civil war has brought a lot of guns onto the streets. However, the dictator is dead, and that is no bad thing. In Syria, on the other hand, things are still very grim. The army is still fighting with defiant protesters and the Assad regime is showing no intention of relaxing its grip. Thousands have been killed, with tens of thousands more arrested. As international sanctions begin to bite and the violence gets ever worse, it looks as if Syria is heading towards civil war. Because it is such a big regional power, such a conflict will have untold consequences. However, the Arab spring has also seen some successes recently. Tunisia held its first elections in four decades, which were said to be free and fair by international observers. The event passed without violence and all parties accepted the results. They will now begin to draft a constitution. The West will take heart that although an Islamic party secured the most votes, it is of a mild nature and did not win a majority. It has pledged to work with secular parties. Democracy in the Middle East does work.

2011 also saw the end of both American and Brittish military action in Iraq, nine years after the bombing of Baghdad and the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Since then, Iraq has been battered by sectarian violence, which the coalition troops have failed to stop. However, Iraq is now more stable than it has been since the invasion, so in some ways the mission has been a success. With the end of Labour governance in the UK, questions about the ethics of the Iraq war have become muted. One thing is clear, however, the Iraqis – for all the problems they face – are glad to see the end of foreign occupation. Politics in Iraq is still fractious. As the last US troops crossed the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, leaving millions of Iraqis unrepresented and destabilising the government. A few days later, the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant on charges of terrorism for the Vice President, Tariq al-Hushemi, after he declared that bomb attacks on Baghdad were so organised that they must have been carried out by the government. Mr al-Maliki is a Shia, Mr Hushemi is a Sunni.

Many, many other events have shaped 2011 – from the start of the Republican nomination race in America, to the creation of South Sudan, to the threatening of Putin’s power in Russia, and finally the death of Kim Jong-il. These events will be changing the world for a long time – stay tuned for my predictions for 2012. Happy New Year.

The dictator is dead

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is dead – killed by one of the Lydian rebels after his hometown of Sirte fell, officially freeing the country after his 42 year dictatorship. The moment, although important, was largely symbolic, as the rebel forces have been in control since they took Tripoli – the capital – in late August. It only remained for them to oust Gaddafi’s forces from his two remaining strongholds Bani Walid and Sirte, both of which are now in rebel hands. The fight is up.

Or is it? Militarily yes, but Libya has a long way to go. Having been under a dictatorship for more than 4 decades the country has no civil infrastructure – no independent
judiciary, no political parties and no electoral system. That means that all of these things have to somehow spring into existence before an election can be held. And that won’t be easy.

The people responsible for all this are the members of the National Transitional Council (NTC), a body of assorted technocrats and politicians that represents the political wing of the rebels. The NTC’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, has pledged elections within 8 months of the killing or capture of Gaddafi. We will see if this happens – but it is unlikely given the amount of organisation that will be needed. It is also questionable whether, having fought so hard for power, the NTC will want to give it up.

Having said all that, there is reason to be optimistic. Libya is on the right track. The NTC are making all the right noises at least, and with Gaddafi out of the picture it is hoped that his supporters will give up and go home. If elections do happen, however slowly, Libya will finally be a democracy.

Even elections pose threats, however. Libya is a deeply divided country, both along ethnic and tribal lines. How this would translate into a stable and representative government is hard to envisage. The other problem is the popularity of Islamists. An Islamist or Islamic party is likely to play an important part in the new government. That would potentially endanger the hard-won freedoms of Libyans, especially women, and sour relationships with the West. And yet there is hope. People have died for freedom, their relatives are unlikely to give it up now.

This is a brief article, written from the poolside of a hotel and for my school’s newspaper. Proper blogging will resume shortly, Luc

Is Libya free?

On the face of it the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Dig a little deeper, though, and the conviction behind the answer wanes a bit. So let’s evaluate.

Yes, Col Gadaffi no longer holds power. Therefore, Libya is free from the tyrant who ruled it by fear for the past four decades. He is no where to be found but his spokesmen still say that he is in Tripoli, while a few members of his family have escaped to neighbouring Algeria. More likely he too has fled, or returned to Sirte – his hometown – where his loyalist troops are expected to regroup and make a last stand. The rebels and the NTC (their government) have issued an ultimatum to the fighters in Sirte: give up, or face an all-out assault. With Tripoli firmly in rebel hands, it is almost impossible for Gadaffi to come back, but people are still scared. That fear will not abait until he is either captured or killed. Again, Libyans are controlled by fear.

So if Gadaffi can not come back, why is there so little international celebration? The world, and many Libyans, are daunted by the problems that could now arise – primarily, what to do with Gadaffi loyalists. Even without their leader, Gadaffi’s army pose a huge threat. For many years they will remain the best trained and best armed men in the country. Naturally, they will do all they can to derail the NTC and any following government in a bid to reinstate Gadaffi or various members of the old regime. They may disrupt elections, or attack ordinary civilians. In short they are dangerous people. And yet there is very little than can be done with them. An Iraqi-style devolution of the army would no doubt lead to the same sort of insurgency as in Iraq, further destabilising the country. It is better to keep the army in its official role, but the NTC will have a lot of reconciliation to do. Libyans, meanwhile, may feel that they have been let down by the keeping of Gadaffi loyalists in positions of power.

Another forceful blow to freedom has not been given much press time. The NTC is not an elected body. It is the self-proclaimed political leadership of the rebel forces. Not one vote helped it into power. This is a big deal. If Libyans did not elect the NTC, how are they ever going to remove it from power? And having fought so hard to gain office, why would the new politicians willingly leave? Luckily the Council is so far making all the right noises (some may say to secure the release of frozen assets). They have promised free and fair elections within eight months of Col Gadaffi’s capture. This is undoubtedly a good sign, but seeing as no one knows where Gadaffi is the Council could conceivably be in power for years before an election is held.

And even if elections do happen in a timely manner, what is to stop someone else from seizing autocratic power? The electoral system would be so new that the opportunities for abuse would be manifold. Of course, the UN will monitor goings on, but what can they do to ensure fairness? Not a lot. Also, it is highly likely that an Islamic or Islamist party will take a majority of seats in a new parliament, leaving many moderate Libyans feeling at best distanced from politics – at worse persecuted over their religion.

For Libya to be free four things need to happen: the capture or killing of Gadaffi, free elections (including freedom to run for office and a comprehensive electoral role), effective maintenance and control of the army, and the preservation of secularism. Not a hard task, then.

A new country

Over night Libya’s rebel army made the much-anticipated advance on Tripoli and we awoke to an almost-finished battle for the city. The rebels used a two-pronged approach, coming both from Ziltan to the West and Zawiya to the East, forcing Gaddafi’s forces to fight on two fronts. As of this morning the rebels were claiming to hold 80-90% of Tripoli, although the BBC was struggling to verify these figures. The rebels’ political wing, the National Transitional Council (NTC) – now recognised by most countries as the legitimate government of Libya – says that there are only ‘pockets of resistance’ left in the capital, although gunfire and heavy weaponry can still be heard throughout the city.

Everyone is now almost, if not completely, certain that Gaddafi is going to go in the next few days. Last night his most influential sons Saif al-Islam and Mohammed were captured and are now being held. This leaves their father even more isolated. And as I write there is a gun battle outside Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli – where it is conceivable he could be. The rebels say that they plan to secure Tripoli by Wednesday and are confident that once this happens the regime will fall.

So Gaddafi’s effectively gone and his forty-two years of dictatorship are over. This is surely a reason to celebrate. But more difficulties lie ahead. Libyan society is very tribal and divided. These divisions have been held together by Col Gaddafi’s iron grip, but in the manic days ahead they may once again rear their heads and fighting may break out. As well as this, troops once loyal to the regime may continue to oppose the NTC, even when they have no-one left to protect. And even if fighting does come to a swift end it will be extremely hard to bring democracy to a country that has not experienced it for four decades. The NTC has been fighting for control for five months now and it would not be surprising if it was reluctant to give it up. This means that the move towards free and fair elections will be slow and painful, even if everyone acts nicely.

There are two big problems facing Libya’s immediate future – NATO and Islamic extremism. The former seems to be sticking around while the rebels call for it to leave, which is slightly awkward as they are on the same side. NATO seems intent on claiming some of the glory, although in recent history many of its heads of state have been very pally with Gaddafi. By sticking around, unwanted, they it is doing more harm than good to its reputation. Journalists in the UK have been quick to remind politicians and the public of the lessons of Iraq. I think this is a bit of an over the top comparison. NATO did not invade Libya, it prevented the massacre of innocent civilians and helped topple an undemocratic and ruthless regime. It did not deploy troops. Crucially, it was invited in. Nevertheless, it should not surpass its mandate of protecting civilians. It also should not try to demilitarise Libya, or impose any of its other ideas about government as it did in Iraq. If it leaves Libya a few days after Gaddafi it wíll have done a good job.

One of the jobs the NTC will have to do in the coming weeks is decide who should be allowed to run in elections, whenever and however they take place. There are two groups who may be causes for concern – ex-Gaddafi supporters and religious fundamentalists. It is unclear what the NTC will decide or how the public views the two groups and integrating them into the new society of Libya will be very difficult. But legally excluding either will only lead to more political strife, especially after Gaddafi’s repressive rule. Safeguards must also be put in place to prevent another breakdown of the constitution and ensure that no one person takes complete command.

It is clear that Libya is at a turning point – and one from which there will be no return. If the next few days and weeks go smoothly it is reasonable to hope that Libya can reach a state of peaceful and functional democracy. Keep your fingers crossed.

On the home stretch

Just before I went to bed last night, the BBC News cast were examining the front pages of today’s papers and wondering if the newspapers would be left red-faced when Tripoli fell over night and their headlines were out of date before the last copy was off the press. It was indeed a possibility. It was, however, not to be so.

Libya fighting map


This is not a bad thing. In fact, the rebels opposing Col Gaddafi have made huge advancements in the past few days. On Friday they finally captured the much fought-over coastal towns of Ziltan and Zawiya and quickly pushed out Gaddafi’s forces. This was highly significant, as these two towns give the rebels control of the coastal road which links the rebel strong holds of the East and Misrata in the West to Tripoli, the capital and Col Gaddafi’s seat of power. The loss of the road also means that Gadaffi’s supply lines have been cut and puts even more pressure on him to go.

Another big breakthrough came from inside Tripoli. The city had so far lain dormant but on Saturday night violence errupted on the streets. There were reports that gunfire was exchanged before Gaddafi’s forces quashed the rebelious citizens. However, the fact remains that Col Gaddafi now faces resistance in his own back garden and he is surely getting anxious. With the taking of Ziltan and Zawiya, it can not be long before the main rebel army arrive in Tripoli.
This in turn means that Gaddafi’s days are numbered, much more than they have ever been. The final possibility of his survival as Libya’s leader has been snuffed out and, much like his counterpart in Syria – President Bashar al-Assad – he has crossed a line of no return. So the question now shifts. We are no longer asking if Gaddafi will go, but when. It seems the answer is soon. His own regime is weakening by the day, with continued defections and a lack of supplies. And if the rebel forces capture Tripoli, the game will surely be up. So then the next question arises. What comes after Gaddafi? Post your theories as comments.

Bombs rain down on marginalised Gaddafi

Yesterday, the UN passed a resolution that gave members a mandate to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians. In response Colonel Gaddafi announced a ceasefire, which – had it been upheld – would have illegitimised any military action. There was a high potential for extreme embarrassment, until reports came that the ceasefire had been broken.

NATO countries started to gather planes in the Mediterranean in preparation for an attack. The main countries involved were France, the UK and the US, who had been accused of not knowing what to do. It was a very difficult dilemma – on one hand, NATO and the UN could not ignore the awful plight of the rebels and the civilians caught up in the fighting. On the other, if military action did not go according to plan, they risked increased terrorism and a repeat of the failures in Iraq. Neither scenario was without its problems.

Within the last few hours, however, French planes have begun firing at pro-Gaddafi forces, with reconnaissance missions also being carried out. As yet there are no plans from any country to deploy ground troops, but multiple air forces and navies are involved. This is not all out war – yet – these forces are simply trying to stop Gaddafi from killing his own people.

Libya – the end of Gaddafi?

Despite the force of the recent successful protests in Egypt and Tunisia, it is incredibly hard to predict what is going to happen in Libya. A few days ago it seemed as if the days of Gaddafi were numbered, but now it seems equally plausible that he will remain in power. The confusion is compounded by the limited supply of verified information coming from the country. The world’s media is scrabbling for news.

So what do we know? We know that rather than a protest movement intent on change, the Libyan opposition has bought the country to the brink of civil war. Gaddafi has rallied his loyal troops and the two sides are now embroiled in an Afghanistan-style fight for territory. The rebels have control of the second city of Benghazi but Gaddafi has a firm hold on Tripoli. Towns and cities across the country are being fought over but it is impossible to tell who is in control where.

A map from the BBC News website:
Libya, military bases map

Innocent people are being caught up in the violence, with three unarmed civilians killed in Misrata by government forces who had made it to the centre. The UK government condemned the violence and removed its support of Gaddafi, which resulted in some embarrassment on the part of the Foreign Office.

The problems in Libya are very different to those we have already seen. There is one main sticking point – and that is Gaddafi himself. When he came to power forty-one years ago, he did not assign himself a titled position. Therefore, even if he did want to resign (he doesn’t, but still) he has nothing to resign from. Officially at least, he has never been Libya’s leader.