Qadhafi, Libya, and the Politics of Change in the Middle East: A CONVERSATION WITH AMBASSADOR DAVID MACK

The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Qadhafi, Libya, and the Politics of Change in the Middle East: A CONVERSATION WITH AMBASSADOR DAVID MACK


M a r c h 1 0 , 2 0 1 1

This interview was conducted before the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 and initiated a military intervention in Libya.

FLETCHER FORUM: Both Muammar al-Qadhafi and Hosni Mubarak had been firmly entrenched leaders for decades. Looking at social media, WikiLeaks, and other developments, what do you see as the key catalyst of change?

AMBASSADOR DAVID MACK: The key change has been demographic, as the youth bulge emerged. In almost all of these countries, and certainly in both Libya and Egypt, there is a disproportionate number of people aged 16 to 30. That's an age when young people have lots of energy and lots of ambition. If their energy and ambition are thwarted and don't have the outlets that most of them are striving for-which include marriage and starting a family, and also gaining some kind of advancement in a job or a profession-it will emerge in other ways. This can often be destabilizing. Economists will tell you that this can be a very powerful force for economic development if it has the right channels, such as we saw in the ASEAN countries, which had similar youth bulges that accompanied periods of greatly increased economic development and employment. But this has not been the situation in the Middle East, and so it has found other outlets, including rebellion against parents and rebellion against authoritative governments. In my view, that's been the single most important change.

The explanation of why this has spread so fast from one country to another does have a lot to do with the new media, which governments strive to control but really are seldom able to do so outside of a few places like North Korea. So, you have a situation in which all of the claims of pan-Arabism came out and suddenly blossomed, and we saw that there was a genuine linguistic and cultural pan-Arabism. Just to take one example, the same chant that was raised by the Tunisian demonstrators ("Ash sha'ab yurid isqat an'nidham!"), which is a revised Standard Arabic sentence ("The people want the overthrow of the regime"), is not the way that you would say it in the Tunisian dialect or the Egyptian dialect or the dialect in Bahrain. But it has been the same chant that has been used in all three countries, so it has obviously spread from its origin in Tunisia throughout the rest of the Arab world. That's an example of how the media have created this unified political area and have sped up the process of change.

FORUM: Despite that pan-Arabism on a people-to-people level, do you see a growing rift between the more democratic Arab states and the autocratic ones? For example, Algeria and Syria helping Qadhafi crush the uprising; what do you see as the long-term implications of this kind of rift?

AMBASSADOR MACK: There are several ways in which Arab governments can respond to the call for greater political freedom. One way is basically the Chinese or Iranian example, which is severe repression. We, as Americans, are very quick to say, "Oh, that won't work in the long term," but, in fact, it has worked for a very long time in China and Iran, and it worked very well for the father of the current president of Syria. Hafez al-Assad used this dramatically by bombing the population of the city of Hama, which had been a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity that posed a serious threat to the Syrian regime in the 1970s. Assad simply eliminated the core of the threat. With other repressive actions, that's worked very well for Syria. The Algerians faced down a similar threat from radicalized extremist groups that were using violence. The Algerian military also used very severe repression. So, that is one possibility.

Another strategy that has been successful for countries that have great economic means is to allow a significant degree of economic liberalization and then smother any calls for political reform with lots of money. The cradleto- grave welfare programs-including free medical care, free education through university graduate school, grants, and low-cost loans for housing-have been used quite successfully by several Arab governments. …

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