Now that the Gaddafi regime has been ousted from Tripoli and the rebels revel in and loot the various palaces of him and his family, the blogosphere and the Guardian’s picture editors are making the (slightly obvious) comparison’s between Gaddafi’s regime and the forgotten colossus in Shelley’s Ozymandias.
However, as talk turns to what Libya and the Middle East will do next I think a probably more profound literary allusion would be George Orwell. Or more specifically, the final words of his 1945 novella Animal Farm:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from
pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Some of the hysterical commentators who confidently asserted that the revolutions would descend into religious fanaticism and a massive pool of oil would be lost under the yoke of Islamic fundamentalism must be slightly annoyed that they were wrong.
The revolution started out, and remains, overwhelmingly secular as the people decided they’d had enough of being dictated to by the interests of old men who were lining their pockets with an iron fist. People don’t want the state to be more religious, they just want it to be freer.
These revolutions were not spontaneous but instead they were the tipping point after decades of the status quo prevailing. Let’s not forget it began with one young man’s protest against a government that took away any chance he had of supporting himself. It is probably not a coincidence that most of these revolutions occurred as the old vanguards of these dictatorships were planning to pass the torch onto the new, younger generations of despots and were about to face a period of transition.
Maybe it was an act of desperation to stop the dictatorship becoming a dynasty and the window of opportunity closing forever?
All we have to do is look at Syria where Assad Sr murdered thousands of protesters in 1982 and razed the city of Hama to crush the uprising and eventually his son succeeded to do the same thing today to the people of Homs. Many people assume that the Syrian regime is on its last legs as so many of its neighbours fall but it has the historical present to survive this if only through the skin of its teeth.
So what about all the new regimes that have been created in the wake of the fallen overlords? I’ll admit I am fairly pessimistic about the future but I don’t think that all the elections and free votes are going to usher in the democracy that apparently every single Arabic person wants according to the Western media outlets.
It probably isn’t going to be that simple. As Muhsen al-Gubbi wrote in the Observer this weekend, “We are a country with six million people and a lot of oil and you need a strongman”. Although according to Reuters , they plan to hold democratic elections within the next 18 months; with the prospect of building a whole new state from scratch how do we know that the former rebels won’t become the authorities they once detested?
This isn’t because of some naive, racist notion that the Middle East ‘can’t do democracy’, more an analysis of mankind’s political behaviour since time immemorial.
Orwell was writing about Stalin’s Russia and how all the post 1917 revolution and the Communist takeover’s promises of equality and an end to tyranny were hollow. He could however, also be talking about the French revolution that promised egalité, fraternité et equalité but instead delivered France into the arms of a military dictator within ten years.
Then there is the modern case of Hamid Karzai, once the symbol of a new, democratic Afghanistan now the British government ‘look forward’ to his departure because Afghani politics is corrupt and questionably ‘democratic’.
The Arab Spring could of course create a lasting, changed Middle East, weirder things have happened, but something tells me they (like Europe did before them) have a long way to go.
Maybe, 18 months from now, ordinary Libyans will look at the people they elected and then back to Gaddafi and find it impossible to say which is which.