How to Keep Those Coconuts Falling
Some lessons on keeping Libya’s revolutionary momentum going throughout the Arab world.
With Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi dead after 42-years of brutal rule, the eyes of the Arab world have turned to the region's other dictators who still remain in power: Bashar al-Assad, who rules the roost in Syria even after slaughtering over 3,000 peaceful protesters, and Yemen's similarly embattled and cruel Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Oct. 21, jubilant Libyans poured into Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, chanting, "Syria! Syria!" But could Syria really be next? A sobering word of caution may be in order in these heady times.
With Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi dead after 42-years of brutal rule, the eyes of the Arab world have turned to the region’s other dictators who still remain in power: Bashar al-Assad, who rules the roost in Syria even after slaughtering over 3,000 peaceful protesters, and Yemen’s similarly embattled and cruel Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Oct. 21, jubilant Libyans poured into Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, chanting, "Syria! Syria!" But could Syria really be next? A sobering word of caution may be in order in these heady times.
The course of unfolding events in North Africa and the Arab world eerily matches almost exactly the trajectory followed by sub-Saharan Africa’s village revolutions in the early 1990s. Whereas the Arab Spring was triggered by the self-immolation of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi in December of last year, Sub-Saharan Africa’s moment in the sun was sparked by the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989. Winds of change swept across the continent, toppling long-standing despots in Benin (1991), Cape Verde Islands (1992), Congo Brazzaville (1992), Ethiopia (1991), Liberia (1990), Malawi (1991), Mali (1991), Sao Tome & Principe (1990), Somalia (1991), South Africa (1994), and Zambia (1991).
Not that these were entirely peaceful transitions either. In Liberia, General Samuel Doe bled to death in 1990 after rebels cornered him and cut off one of his ears. His body was burned and the ashes thrown into a river. Mohamed Siad Barre fled Somalia in 1991 in a tank that ran out of gas near the Kenyan border. In March of that year, angry Malians took to the streets to demand democratic freedom from the despotic rule of Gen. Moussa Traore. He unleashed his security forces on them, killing scores, including women and children. But pro-democracy forces were not deterred and kept up the pressure. Asked to resign on March 25, he retorted: "I will not resign, my government will not resign, because I was elected not by the opposition but by all the people of Mali." Two days later, when he tried to flee the country, he was grabbed by his own security agents and sent to jail. From there, he lamented: "My fate is now in God’s hands."
In some African countries, such as Togo and Zimbabwe, autocrats put up fierce resistance, learned new tricks and beat back the democratic challenge. In others, such as Benin and Congo Brazzaville, ousted autocrats clawed their way back to power. In yet other countries, like Ethiopia and Zambia, the so-called new democrats turned out to be worse than the despots they ousted, affirming the African aphorism: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power and the next rat comes to do the same thing."
So what do the African village revolutions have to teach us as we look forward to the next stage of the Arab Spring?
First, rah-rah street protests alone are not sufficient to defeat a dictator. Neither is a single individual, group or party; it takes a coalition of opposition forces. The freedom movements in Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other countries have been stymied by disunity and divisions within opposition forces. Even when an opposition can unify into a solid protest movement, as in Egypt, it still needs the aid of an auxiliary institution — such as the military, the judiciary, the media, or some combination — to succeed in toppling a dictator.
Second, a distinction must be made between a dictator and the dictatorship. A dictator is but the driver of an old, dilapidated car. Getting rid of the driver is a first step, but that alone is not enough. Next, you must also dissemble and fix the vehicle. Another driver behind the wheel of the same kaput car doesn’t change a thing. In far too many countries, the second step was either neglected or left incomplete — from Benin and Zambia to Indonesia and the Philippines, even Ukraine. The revolution gets reversed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the dictatorship is yet to be dismantled. Egyptians have quickly become disillusioned with the Supreme Military Council, which violently cracked down on Coptic Christian protesters, killing 25 of them on Oct. 9.
Third, you can’t just go about fixing the car willy-nilly. A dictatorship must be dismantled and fixed in a particular sequence. In fixing a broken-down car, one does not install a new fan belt to cool the engine when the radiator leaks. The ideal sequence to fixing a dictatorship begins with intellectual freedom, then political reform, constitutional reform, institutional reform, and finally economic reform. Skipping or short-circuiting a step could lead to a reversal of the revolutions.
For example, economic liberalization or the "Washington consensus" is often pushed ahead of all other reforms by Western donors and multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. To be sure, economic liberalization engenders prosperity, but it eventually hits a political ceiling. If the leadership can first open up the political space — as in Chile (under Augusto Pinochet in 1988) and Ghana (under Jerry Rawlings in 2000) — prosperity is given space to continue. But when the leadership adamantly keeps the political lid on, the result is an implosion that unravels all the economic gains made: see Indonesia (1998), Ivory Coast (2000), Madagascar (2001), Yugoslavia (1991), or Zimbabwe (1995).
Fourth, there’s the role of porous borders and international cooperation in enabling the spread of revolution. During the village revolutions, cross-border fertilization of news and ideas had a powerful demonstration effect in other countries. Leaders of newly liberated countries sent messages and support — not just rhetoric, but logistical support as well — to fellow freedom fighters in other African countries: from Benin to Togo and Zambia to Malawi. Similarly, Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians have sent their support — and should continue doing so — to pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Libyans, for example, may want to ship the weapons they no longer need to the Free Syrian Army to defend and protect the residents of Qoms. And Egyptians may offer to mummify Qaddafi’s body for permanent display so that other hardened coconuts may view it. Perhaps it will drill some sense into them. In the face of such a tidal wave, more coconuts are destined to tumble.
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