Friday, September 14, 2012

Vacuum democracy: Egypt, Libya and the future

IT ALL started with such promise. Last October, Muammar Gaddafi, the meretricious tyrant who ruled Libya for 42 years, was finally overthrown after months of civil unrest within that north African country. And in June, Mohammed Morsi, a streetwise Egyptian activist, ascended to the presidency of Egypt after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the pharaoh wannabe who ruled Egypt for almost 30 years, and who once held Morsi as a prisoner of his regime.

Such events in the panoramic Arab Spring uprising seemed to hold out hope that democracy in those countries and more besides could take hold, that countries in the grip of despots and tinpot clowns could achieve a populist-driven change of direction, leadership and future. It all seemed so ... possible.

Events since Tuesday have called into question whether that future is possible. On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens; Sean Smith, Glen Dougherty and Tyrone Woods were killed in an attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Ten Libyans were also killed defending Stevens and the consulate in a protest that saw the building trashed and looted by angry mobs.

In Egypt, in a similar protest on the same day, rioters ransacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. There was no immediate loss of life, but the torching of the embassy couldn't help but arouse skepticism of Morsi’s leadership, and uncertainty about the new Egypt’s nascent relationship with the United States.

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The protests there and elsewhere were first thought to have been precipitated by outrage over a video produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an extremist Coptic Christian producer in California, and directed by Alan Roberts, a film director whose contributions to the cultural canon include such indelible movie classics as “The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.”

A 14-minute trailer of the movie, “The Innocence of Muslims,” was posted to YouTube, and shows the Prophet Muhammad as a spiritual charlatan and a womanizer, depicting him in a thoroughly unflattering light — anathema to Muslims.

There’s some question as to whether the anti-Islam film was the real trigger for the unrest, or whether the attack in Libya was something more orchestrated, with a more specific intent.

Hisham Matar, writing in The New Yorker, speculates that the Benghazi assault may have been “the work of an extremist faction who, like the Salafis, are willing to use force to exact their will. These groups have perpetrated other similar assaults in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya. They are ultra-religious, authoritarian groups who justify their actions through selective, corrupt, and ultimately self-serving interpretations of Islam.

“[W]hile much is still uncertain, Tuesday’s attack appears to have been their attempt to escalate a strategy they have employed ever since the Libyan revolution overthrew Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship. They see in these days, in which the new Libya and its young institutions are still fragile, an opportunity to grab power. They want to exploit the impatient resentments of young people in particular in order to disrupt progress and the development of democratic institutions.”

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BUT WHILE the source of the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo are up for debate, what’s undeniable is the bad light these incidents place on the fledgling efforts at democracy underway in both countries. On June 24, in his first speech as Egypt’s first democratic president, Morsi promised to “preserve international accords and obligations.”

In August, the Libyan parliament appointed National Front Party head Mohammed Yussef Magarief as Libya's interim president; in a case of sadly ironic timing, the parliament on Wednesday elected Mustafa Abu-Shakour, a longtime Gaddafi opponent, to fill the permanent post.

Abu-Shakour pledged to find the ones responsible for the violence of Tuesday and Wednesday. “"We have some names and some photographs. Arrests have been made and more are under way as we speak," he told reporter Alex Spillius of The Telegraph (UK).

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The anodyne optics of these new governments confront uncertainties inherited by the governments themselves. These democracies, trying to walk into the future on a newborn’s spindly untried legs, face off against the passions of the streets, and the passions of unknown actors trying to assert their influence for unknown aims.

Time magazine international editor Jim Frederick, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, said: “I think what we’re looking at now is the new calculus; these democracies have flourished, have flowered, but they don’t really have good control, security apparatus. 
Things are changing all the time. …

“Even Obama today said that he doesn’t know whether he considers Egypt an ally or an enemy. So now you have a much more chaotic environment where you really don’t know where the attacks are coming from and the local security apparatus can’t really stop local and spontaneous demonstrations like these quite as well as they used to.”

Frederick never used the word on Wednesday, but what he’s describing is a vacuum. Democracies emerging in a vacuum.

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AS EGYPT and Libya take their first pivots toward participatory democracy, each faces the challenge of stepping toward Western-style government while trying to satisfy factions bent on preserving some measure of the Islamist status quo — and targeting Western powers, literally, in the process.

As those governments ramp up, uprisings spawned in the heady atmosphere of the Arab Spring — and those trying to exploit the Arab Spring’s populist spirit — may be contributing to an instability that complicates the very democratic objectives the uprisings were intended to achieve.

This instability reflects that V word which nature abhors, and that extremists, and terrorists, will happily embrace whenever they get the chance.

Cairo protester: Khalil Hamra/Associated Press. Chrisrtopher Stevens: public domain. President Obama and Hillary Clinton: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press. Abu-Shakour: Mahmud Tiurkis/AFP/Getty Images. Flag burning at Middle East protest: Via The Huffington Post.

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