Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The North African Revolutions: The End of an Era

The start of 2011 has been revolutionary in North Africa. Civil unrest exploded first in Tunisia, when demonstrators managed to oust long-time ruler, Ben Ali, after days of protests threatening to transform into a civil war. The people of Egypt followed. Following two weeks of clashes between thousands of civilian protesters in Cairo and elsewhere, and the Egyptian police and army forces, the Egyptian president, Mubarak, announced that he was stepping down. Libya followed: thousands of protesters invaded the streets of Tripoli and other major cities, demanding the abdication of power by Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for 41 years. However, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where police and army forces were unwilling to inflict serious damage on civilian protesters, eyewitness reports indicate that Gaddafi employed ruthless mercenaries to fire and shoot civilians. As of today, Gaddafi remains officially in power, although it appears that parts of eastern Libya have already fallen under the protesters' control.
The West has been cautiously supportive of these revolutions. All three of these rulers, Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, had been supported by the West for various reasons, such as their renouncement of the Soviet philosophy during the Cold War, their willingness to trade in oil and other important commodities, their commitment to abide by nuclear non-proliferation regimes, and their importance in the geo-political equilibrium of the North African region. Thus, it was somewhat embarrassing for the Great Powers of the West to witness these revolutions, all rooted upon democratic principles which the western democracies embrace. The Great Powers were forced to applaud the revolutions, but remained cautious to abandon the dictators right away, fearing what such quick cutting of support might do to the regional stability. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton urged Mubarak to step down, if his people no longer wished to have him as their leader. Similarly, they implored Qaddafi to leave peacefully - to no avail.
On March 1, the United Nations Security council voted unanimously to refer the Libyan situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In fact, the ICC, according to the referral, should investigate violations of international law by the Libyan security forces in their treatment of the civilian protesters. It is somewhat unsurprising that the Security Council so swiftly condemned Gaddafi. Qaddafi has been openly critical of the ICC, and was vocal in condemning the court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president, Al-Bashir. Libya is not a member of the ICC, and has not been cooperating with the tribunal. Moreover, historically, Qaddafi has offended the west many times. He was the main culprit in the Lockerbie bombings, and sanctions that had been imposed on Libya were lifted only relatively recently, when Gaddafi accepted to cooperate in a nuclear non-proliferation program. Thus, it is hardly a surprise that western leaders would not support Qaddafi today, and that they would refer his alleged crimes to the ICC. We can only hope that Gaddafi will step down before inflicting more needless violence upon the Libyan population.
The three revolutions in North Africa are not isolated in the world. Unrest has recently been plaguing Bahrain, as well as Gabon. Other non-democratically ruled nations may follow. Similar to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, now, 20 years later, we are witnessing another wave of revolutions against oppressive dictatorships and toward the idea of governance through democratic principles. Democracy has been prevailing and may turn out to be the only legitimate form of government in the 21st century.

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