Opinion | Columnists

The old Libya unravels

Reconstituting a society after generations of colonial and indigenous subjection will be an onerous task

  • Image Credit: Guillermo Munro/©Gulf News

Earlier last week, Libyan revolutionaries entered the Green Square in their capital city and declared victory, putting an end to the long reign of Muammar Gaddafi, an over-achieving despot, under-educated man and — to those of us who cringed while watching his antics at the podium of the UN General Assembly in September last year — an embarrassingly unsophisticated statesman.

Now seemingly on the run, he will no longer engage in the kind of political bestiality and institutionalised sadism that had characterised his 42-year rule.

That's the easy part of the struggle for Libya's soul. The difficult part lies ahead. Where does a country with virtually no traditions of civil society, a country rendered infirm by a regime whose excesses spanned a whole gamut of villany, go from here? Will the new leadership, starting from scratch, find new coordinates for a political reference that touches urgently on the new contours of its people's lives?

Every person frames their world uniquely. Where a society is reassembled anew, after a long interval of repression and stagnation, it can reinvent itself by drawing on intellectual, ideological and symbolic constructs from its past. That, we know, happened in the wake of all revolutionary upheavals in European countries. What happens, however, when these antecedents are not naturally at hand, and a totally new present tense in the grammar of a social being has be created? Can it be done, one then wonders, from scratch? And the question here concerns no less those other Arab countries going through revolutionary ferment in this Arab Spring than it does Libya.

Unless you subscribe to the anachronistic, somewhat racist notion that the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, by virtue of their faith, traditions and skin colour, are immune to democracy, it can be done. Indeed it has already been done. After the disintegration of the inefficient and repressive Ottoman Empire in 1922, for example, Turkey's Young Turks, its new cadre of intellectuals and political leaders, showed great eagerness, in their effort to modernise their nation, at borrowing ideas from the West that they felt were responsive to their needs.

There is no stigma, surely, to appropriating useful ideas outside the park. Cultures throughout history have been known to lend and borrow freely from each other, whether the ideas are derived from politics, literature, science, maths, philosophy, architecture and the rest of it. Consider this: every time a kid in high school in the United States works on an Algebraic equation, that kid is paying tribute to the genius of early Arab mathematicians; and every time someone in southern California walks through a house with horse-shoe, Moorish arches, intended to open walls to porticos that let in more air and light, you know that the design for that arch had travelled all the way from Damascus, beginning in the 7th century, to Andalusia in the Iberian Peninsula, then to South America, and finally to the state of California.

Human capital counts

The features of the new Arab landscape, the new order in the Arab world, should be unmistakably clear. A century ago, wealth in the Arab world was defined by land ownership. Half a century ago, a citizen derived security from material possessions. In today's world — today's competitive, globalised world — it is human capital that counts in society, that underwrites the survival, progress and well-being of polity.

That capital is accumulated as universal education in a highly-literate society: As the rule of law; as an independent media unhindered by outside control; as representative government; as freedom from intrusion by the state into the private affairs of ordinary citizens; as a recognition by the authorities of the civilising role of the arts and free discourse; as a chance for the under-class to pursue social mobility; as an enlightened pivot to gender interaction. And, well, yes, I leave it to you to make the list more extended and detailed, as surely it should be.

Meanwhile, what is there left to say about Muammar Gaddafi, a man with a gift for cheap pomp — and not only in his fashion statement — who threatened to hunt down the ‘rats', those Libyan revolutionaries who dared rise up against his regime, and show them ‘no mercy, no pity' once his troops caught up with them? His empty threats were to no avail.

Last week, as the circle of vengeance closed in on his compound, and citizen revolutionaries, many with stark memories of the monstrous evil he had loosed upon their country, gathered to celebrate in the Green Square, he and his son, Saif Al Islam, the regime's dauphin, took off to hiding places yet unknown.

Gaddafi himself, I say, is irrelevant, just as irrelevant as the deposed leaders of Egypt and Tunisia had become, two pathetic, aging figures languishing respectively in prison and in exile. What matters is how the revolutionaries, once in power, will define and direct Libya's future. If one interprets their leaders' various statements at all accurately, they appear to want their nation to emerge as free, pluralistic and democratic. The task of taking Libya there will not be easy. But then, reconstituting a society after generations of colonial and indigenous subjection never was.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.