Driving in from the airport to the center of Tripoli, as you pass Pepsi-Cola Road and approach the old city, you see one billboard after another featuring Mohammar Qaddafi. He has different guises, depending on whether he wishes to be Col. Qaddafi in military uniform, or tribal Qaddafi in flowing robes, or religious Qaddafi in the turban and cloak of an imam. Overlooking the central square is Qaddafi the modernizer of Libya, sporting brownish-yellow sunglasses that might have been stylish in 1969 when Qaddafi first came to power in a military coup, but today give him the appearance of trying too hard to be young.
I wondered why there were no pictures of Qaddafi in a hard hat standing next to an oil rig. It is, after all, the miles and miles of oil derricks and refineries situated south of Tripoli, and at the edge of the great expanse of Saharan desert comprising most of the country, that give Libya its wealth and Qaddafi his importance on the world stage. Libya is a founding member of OPEC, and it was Qaddafi’s alliance with the Shah of Iran that spurred OPEC in 1979 to increase oil prices four fold. What the Shah wanted out of such an arrangement was wealth; what Qaddafi wanted was the attention of the West to the plight of the great mass of dispossessed Arabs ”“ the Palestinians. How ironic, therefore, that both leaders have met their end by ignoring a whole group of other dispossessed Arabs: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, and the powerless millions who toiled daily under the billboard visages of their ”œleader”.
Qaddafi Meets the People
I think we can pretty much speak of Qaddafi in the past tense. He squandered whatever shred of respect he still had from the people he ruled by mowing them down with machine guns this past week. His only hope for survival rests on some faction of the military willing to support him and suppress public demonstrations with whatever brutality is necessary. Even so, there is no guarantee that faction can stay in power, and certainly not without offering up Qaddafi himself as proof of their willingness to bring a new leader to Libya, flying a flag of ”œreform”.
How odd that it should be Col. Qaddafi who has fallen victim to a true revolution, not the phony revolution he talked about endlessly when he extolled the coup d’etat he and some other junior officers staged to oust old King Idris over forty years ago. Qaddafi did everything possible to be the perfect Arab ruler. He spoke up for the Palestinians and against the Israelis, he supported terrorist groups engaged in attacks against Israel and the West, and he behaved himself in public as a pious Muslim. There are rumors that alcohol can be had at some embassy private parties, but it is otherwise impossible to buy in Libya (until recently you could not buy a Coca-Cola, since Pepsi has had the soft drink franchise for years). There is not one pig in the entire country; it is an unclean animal. Qaddafi did his best to ward off a Muslim Brotherhood uprising by being more Muslim and more revolutionary than any who might challenge him on religious grounds.
What more, then, could the people want from him? Why have they been amassing this past week in public squares, taking bullets to the chest from snipers, allowing themselves to be run down by tanks, or strafed by fighter jets? Libyans have lived under this man for forty years. What is it now that provides them the courage to risk death in order to get rid of Mohammar Qaddafi?
The Longer They Rule, the Quicker They Fall?
People certainly can be shocked into action. It had to be a shock to the people of Libya to see within the space of a month the lifetime rulers of their neighbors to the west and the east of them both deposed because of civic demonstrations. Who would have thought you could get rid of someone like Hosni Mubarak merely by taking control of public spaces? Part of the shock must have been the realization that these dictators for life, holding in their hands all important social and political controls, and unafraid to use the most pernicious tools of persuasion, could so suddenly be prompted to give it all up and flee the country. Of course, to be accurate, everyone recognizes that the demonstrators didn’t really depose these dictators; they forced the military to withdraw support and deliver not so much a coup d’etat, as the coup de grace.
In Tunisia, the well-spring of these upheavals, the spark of revolution came from the self-immolation of a young man unable to find any job. This is a reality that resonates deeply with young men and women throughout the Arab world, and a common language allows them to shares their experiences from Morocco to Syria. A restaurant I like to frequent in Damascus is rather like a sports bar, with good pizza and several televisions available showing different football matches. Viewers are encouraged to text in their opinions of the match, and a scroll on the bottom of each screen shows who has just sent a message. It is an unending parade of Middle East countries: Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, etc. It is a reminder of how many Arabs are Egyptian, but also how connected the Arab world now is through Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, texting, social networks, cell phones, and so on.
This sense of being part of a larger Arab world is relatively new and clearly reflects the importance of technological advances in communications. It overcomes something that has always kept Arabs apart: the fact, for example, that Arabs in Syria cannot understand Arabs in Morocco or elsewhere in the Maghreb. The dialects are way too different. In fact, Syrians and Jordanians not only have trouble understanding their neighbors next door in Iraq, they can barely understand the Bedouins who live in the desert herding goats and sheep. Hardly anyone can understand the Egyptians because they speak too fast, and religious leaders can be incomprehensible when reading from the Holy Quran because it is spoken in the Arabic equivalent of Old English.
Written Arabic, the type used in emails, is what has bound young Arabs together in recent years, as has shorthand Arabic used in texting. What about the mothers, the taxi drivers, the professors, the small businessmen, the clergy, and the elderly who came out in the thousands to these demonstrations in support of their children? What was their motivation? It no doubt was sympathy if not empathy for those desperate for employment, but it also has to be frustration and perhaps desperation at the increasing difficulty people have in supporting a family in these countries. The most important components of family budgets in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are food and energy, both of which have increased dramatically in the past year, just at the time Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve announced he wanted ”œa little bit of inflation” to combat the global economic crisis.
The Rich Want Inflation, While the Poor Need Deflation
There are lots of other causes for rising commodity prices, such as material shortages, droughts, and growing demand in markets like India and China. But no other cause has one man’s name on it, and no other person has let loose a ravenous pack of hedge fund speculators, provided them trillions of dollars of ”œliquidity” with which to speculate, and protected them from losses. Bernanke has much to answer for, because it is very unlikely we would have seen these uprisings if he had allowed deflation to take its course. Deflation is the friend of the poor. The average Egyptian or Libyan has no concept of a bank account, because they don’t exist for the retail market in those countries. Poor people would not be hurt by a banking crisis, or a stock market crash, or a derivatives calamity, or a housing bubble, because none of these things directly affect their lives. On the other hand, basic necessities would go down in value under deflation.
The West is fearful of deflation because it undermines the whole concept of a fiat currency, which has brought growth through inflation year after year to the industrialized economies, even though the currency gets progressively debased as a result. Central banks always think they can keep the inflation growing at a modest rate, but along came Alan Greenspan and his protÃ©gÃ© Ben Bernanke, who threw away any caution on the amount of currency in circulation, and who refused to acknowledge assets bubbles in the making. Maybe this is because the two of them looked about and saw the specter of deflation undermining all their work ”“ deflation brought about principally by China as manufacturing locus of the world, but any third world country with a work force willing to earn $2 a day could challenge Western supremacy at manufacturing.
At first it wasn’t clear whether Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iran or any of these countries facing challenges to the political status quo were part of the dynamic that was undermining living standards in the West. Now it appears that they were, just as it appears the West was horribly wrong on what ”œArabs on the street” really want. They do not see everything in the eyes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They aren’t obsessed over radical Islam and don’t want to be ruled by some imam or ayatollah living in the 15th century. No wonder Thomas Friedman is back in the Middle East trying to get his bearings again; if only he spoke Arabic he could, depending on the dialect he knew, talk to the people in the public squares and ask them what they wanted, rather than spend his time talking to people who graduated from Harvard and Oxford and travel to Davos every year in their private jet.
Is Anybody Really Listening?
Talking and listening to the real dispossessed Arabs would be at least a start for the West, even though the demonstrators and their millions of supporters can’t tell us yet if they want a parliamentary democracy, or a bicameral Republican government, or a constitutional monarchy, or even capitalism (don’t underestimate the appeal of Chinese mercantilism to countries new to the global market). The real question for the West, though, is whether the people running things want to talk to any of the dispossessed millions, even those in their own country. In the US, the Republican party leadership is doing as much as possible to ignore and marginalize the Tea Party voices newly-elected to Congress, just as Democratic politicians are trying to appear supportive of the Wisconsin demonstrators without appearing to offend corporate donors who don’t like unions.
This must be a time of great confusion for leaders everywhere. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak had taken to erecting billboards featuring his son Gamal as heir-apparent. In Jordan King Abdullah II replaced his billboard photo with one showing him side by side with his teenage son, the Crown Prince. It is an obvious attempt to familiarize the Jordanian public with their ruler-to-be, but is it having the opposite effect? Are people tiring of monarchies and dynastic rulers? If so, the Chinese seem to be a step ahead of the game, assuring that a new head of the Communist Party appears on the scene every few years. But if it is true, then Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is in trouble, and demonstrations should be occurring in Cuba and North Korea.
It is one thing for the West to see the backside of Mohammar Qaddafi, but quite another to have the Saudi monarchy overthrown. By what, and by whom? Would their oil reserves be secure and would Saudi Arabia remain a stanch friend of the West? In the Middle East, power in these situations is devolving so far to the military, but is installing another military dictator, however benign, going to satisfy the demands of the people? Can anyone satisfy these demands if people want to see the price of wheat, rice, chicken, cotton, sugar, petrol, and other essentials back down to where they were in 2009?
Nobody knows, which is precisely why leadership everywhere is addled and uncertain how to respond. What they should most fear, however, is someone who connects together the riots in Greece several years ago, the demonstrations in Iceland, and the events throughout the Middle East, with the protests in Wisconsin, and who then draws a picture which makes sense and which everyone can understand.
As People Come to Think They Are an Afterthought
The picture is not in focus yet, but the outlines are beginning to appear. They show a collapse of the world economic order because free trade was never free except for the wealthy at the top of the system, and because billions of people are discovering they have been enslaved in sweat shops, or enslaved to the banks through debt which can never be legally discharged. The picture is emerging of crony capitalism run rampant, of fraud perpetrated out in the open because it is never punished, of the sons of rich men like Rupert Murdoch anointed to run his business empire (even though it is a public company), just as the sons of dictators are given the divine right to rule and plunder a country. It is a picture in country after country of wealth, power, and privilege being concentrated in the hands of the few, while poverty spreads to millions.
As these depredations become clearer to the public, the powerful mumble bromides about the necessity for order and security, because they have no other answer. All they have left are the tools of control ”“ the curfews, the police surveillance, the arrests, the fear-mongering designed to convince the public their own safety should be the foremost thing on their mind. It has worked in the past, but maybe now the public is realizing the greatest risk to their safety is the government itself. Maybe this is what they wonder when they see the face of their government everyday on a billboard in a public square, or on the internet, or on the television news programs.
Government which works only for the interest of those who do the governing ultimately loses the consent of the governed. That is the point we now seem to have reached, whether in Tripoli or Dublin or Madison, Wisconsin. It is a truth being comprehended almost simultaneously by billions of people, and this is something that has never happened on a global scale before. We know it is a truth by seeing the bodies of Libyans on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, murdered by a government that clearly does not have the consent of the governed.
We would also like to believe that a government cannot last long if it does not have the consent of the governed, but the Middle East has proven this to be untrue. It does seem to be the case that the longer repression and tyranny goes on, the more sudden and unexpected is the collapse of such regimes. This has been so with the USSR and all such closed, one-party systems, and the Middle East is now experiencing its moment of revelation.
The ultimate question for democracies is whether they are immune from such upheavals, by virtue of merely being a democracy with supposed safety valves, or whether democracy has been so degraded by corporatism, oligarchy, and plutocracy that a sudden, wrenching change of the existing order is possible here too. At least for a democracy like the United States, where the two parties seem indistinguishable in their eagerness to provide corporations and the wealthy with whatever they demand, no one should be surprised if there is a wrenching change of the existing order. Let us hope it is a change within the existing structures of democracy, or perhaps better said, as a restoration of those atrophied structures of democracy long in disuse because the wealthy have found ways to achieve their objectives without bothering with the consent of the governed.