How to Keep Those Coconuts Falling

Some lessons on keeping Libya’s revolutionary momentum going throughout the Arab world.

With Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi dead after 42-years of brutal rule, the eyes of the Arab world have turned to the region's other dictators who still remain in power: Bashar al-Assad, who rules the roost in Syria even after slaughtering over 3,000 peaceful protesters, and Yemen's similarly embattled and cruel Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Oct. 21, jubilant Libyans poured into Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, chanting, "Syria! Syria!" But could Syria really be next? A sobering word of caution may be in order in these heady times.  

The course of unfolding events in North Africa and the Arab world eerily matches almost exactly the trajectory followed by sub-Saharan Africa's village revolutions in the early 1990s. Whereas the Arab Spring was triggered by the self-immolation of Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi in December of last year, Sub-Saharan Africa's moment in the sun was sparked by the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989. Winds of change swept across the continent, toppling long-standing despots in Benin (1991), Cape Verde Islands (1992), Congo Brazzaville (1992), Ethiopia (1991), Liberia (1990), Malawi (1991), Mali (1991), Sao Tome & Principe (1990), Somalia (1991), South Africa (1994), and Zambia (1991).

Not that these were entirely peaceful transitions either. In Liberia, General Samuel Doe bled to death in 1990 after rebels cornered him and cut off one of his ears. His body was burned and the ashes thrown into a river. Mohamed Siad Barre fled Somalia in 1991 in a tank that ran out of gas near the Kenyan border. In March of that year, angry Malians took to the streets to demand democratic freedom from the despotic rule of Gen. Moussa Traore. He unleashed his security forces on them, killing scores, including women and children. But pro-democracy forces were not deterred and kept up the pressure. Asked to resign on March 25, he retorted: "I will not resign, my government will not resign, because I was elected not by the opposition but by all the people of Mali." Two days later, when he tried to flee the country, he was grabbed by his own security agents and sent to jail. From there, he lamented: "My fate is now in God's hands."

In some African countries, such as Togo and Zimbabwe, autocrats put up fierce resistance, learned new tricks and beat back the democratic challenge. In others, such as Benin and Congo Brazzaville, ousted autocrats clawed their way back to power. In yet other countries, like Ethiopia and Zambia, the so-called new democrats turned out to be worse than the despots they ousted, affirming the African aphorism: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power and the next rat comes to do the same thing."

So what do the African village revolutions have to teach us as we look forward to the next stage of the Arab Spring?

First, rah-rah street protests alone are not sufficient to defeat a dictator. Neither is a single individual, group or party; it takes a coalition of opposition forces. The freedom movements in Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other countries have been stymied by disunity and divisions within opposition forces. Even when an opposition can unify into a solid protest movement, as in Egypt, it still needs the aid of an auxiliary institution -- such as the military, the judiciary, the media, or some combination -- to succeed in toppling a dictator.

Second, a distinction must be made between a dictator and the dictatorship. A dictator is but the driver of an old, dilapidated car. Getting rid of the driver is a first step, but that alone is not enough. Next, you must also dissemble and fix the vehicle. Another driver behind the wheel of the same kaput car doesn't change a thing. In far too many countries, the second step was either neglected or left incomplete -- from Benin and Zambia to Indonesia and the Philippines, even Ukraine. The revolution gets reversed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the dictatorship is yet to be dismantled. Egyptians have quickly become disillusioned with the Supreme Military Council, which violently cracked down on Coptic Christian protesters, killing 25 of them on Oct. 9.

Third, you can't just go about fixing the car willy-nilly. A dictatorship must be dismantled and fixed in a particular sequence. In fixing a broken-down car, one does not install a new fan belt to cool the engine when the radiator leaks. The ideal sequence to fixing a dictatorship begins with intellectual freedom, then political reform, constitutional reform, institutional reform, and finally economic reform. Skipping or short-circuiting a step could lead to a reversal of the revolutions.

For example, economic liberalization or the "Washington consensus" is often pushed ahead of all other reforms by Western donors and multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. To be sure, economic liberalization engenders prosperity, but it eventually hits a political ceiling. If the leadership can first open up the political space -- as in Chile (under Augusto Pinochet in 1988) and Ghana (under Jerry Rawlings in 2000) -- prosperity is given space to continue. But when the leadership adamantly keeps the political lid on, the result is an implosion that unravels all the economic gains made: see Indonesia (1998), Ivory Coast (2000), Madagascar (2001), Yugoslavia (1991), or Zimbabwe (1995).

Fourth, there's the role of porous borders and international cooperation in enabling the spread of revolution. During the village revolutions, cross-border fertilization of news and ideas had a powerful demonstration effect in other countries. Leaders of newly liberated countries sent messages and support -- not just rhetoric, but logistical support as well -- to fellow freedom fighters in other African countries: from Benin to Togo and Zambia to Malawi. Similarly, Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians have sent their support -- and should continue doing so -- to pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Libyans, for example, may want to ship the weapons they no longer need to the Free Syrian Army to defend and protect the residents of Qoms. And Egyptians may offer to mummify Qaddafi's body for permanent display so that other hardened coconuts may view it. Perhaps it will drill some sense into them. In the face of such a tidal wave, more coconuts are destined to tumble.



The Death of a Tyrant

Libyans have been dreaming of Qaddafi's demise for over four decades. But when the day finally came, I could not help but wishing he had been captured, not killed.

The phone rang early in the morning, waking me up. My little sister was on the line, and I knew immediately from the breathless tone of her greeting what she was about to say. Qaddafi is dead. Killed in a gun battle in Sirte. I switched on Al Jazeera, rubbed my eyes, and stared silently at the screen. One by one, the congratulatory phone calls, emails, and text messages began to pour in, but I found myself in no mood to celebrate.

For so many Libyans, the significance of this moment is impossible to express in words, because it is the product of a particular type of lived experience -- it represents the culmination of countless other moments that have lead up to this one, and which saturate it with a deep sense of history and meaning. It sounds morbid, but today was a day I had pictured over and over again in my head since I was a child, wondering how it would happen and how we would all find out, imagining my parents' overjoyed faces in that moment of truth, along with the faces of everyone else in our community, many of whom had personally experienced dispossession, loss, torture, humiliation, imprisonment, or exile. 

But I wasn't alone in my reverie. Growing up in a tight-knit community of dissidents in the United States, political discussions were a ubiquitous feature of daily life. Even a young child's consciousness was permeated with images of the tyrant, and the mundane aspects of everyday life were punctuated by a grand narrative of perpetual struggle. Whether at the dinner table, on weekend picnics, or on holidays, whenever Libyans in the United States got together, they talked politics. The thing was, politics in Libya meant only one thing -- one man -- and you could never escape him.

What happened on Oct. 20 was the realization of a dream that had long ago crossed over into the realm of fantasy. It represents something which millions of people have been waiting, even praying, for. Such an admission may not be politically correct, yet nothing about Libyan society over the past 42 years has been, frankly.

But one man's death cannot reverse generations of trauma. There is a palpable sense of pensiveness, even mourning, surrounding this moment, not only because of the thousands of innocent people who have been killed, maimed, and traumatized over the past eight months -- but also because our loved ones who passed away over the years of his rule, and who prayed and dreamed of his demise along with us, will never know the feeling of this moment.

Exiled from their homeland or suffocated under the yoke of repression, they have perished -- but we get to exhale now and, if we want, we get to go home. For me, this is a profoundly humbling thought. Libyan culture is deeply Islamic, which means that it takes seriously the responsibility to honor its deceased and its martyrs. There is a strong sense among Libyans that we need to do right by them, and not squander a moment that has come at the highest cost.

Qaddafi was finished the minute Tripoli fell, perhaps even before then. Even if he had managed to spark some chaos from whatever hole he was languishing in, the significance of today's news is far more symbolic than it is practical. And it comes with one huge disappointment for many Libyans: His death means that there can be no trial, no chance for his people to confront him with their grievances, no opportunity for his victims' families to look him in the eyes and make him understand exactly what he has taken from them. To add insult to injury, after having enjoyed a relatively long and privileged life, Qaddafi was shot by rebel fighters, and will no doubt be glorified by some as a martyr, or worse, as an innocent victim of imperial aggression.

It's difficult to know what the Colonel really thought about the Libyan people and their revolution, if he actually bought into his own rhetoric about being a father, a guide, and a symbol to all Libyans. Did he really believe, as he repeatedly claimed, that the "millions" adored and supported him, or that al Qaeda, drugs, and foreign news channels conspired with a few seditious "rats" to precipitate his downfall? Was he at all aware that the overwhelming majority of Libyans wanted nothing more than to see him go?  The Colonel's psychological state had long been the subject of intense international debate, and it is certainly conceivable that he constructed an environment that allowed these delusions to flourish. Unfortunately, the answers to so many important questions have almost certainly died with the dictator. 

As for the question of justice, Libyans who have waited for his day -- their day -- in court will have to take solace in their faith in a transcendent justice.

Catharsis will come only if Libyans can make peace with the past and with each other, and if they dedicate themselves to building a society committed to democracy, justice, and pluralism. They must let go of the charged rhetoric that glorifies revolution for its own sake, and remind themselves that this struggle was not about slogans and sentiment, or about military victory, or even about toppling Qaddafi -- but rather about eventually bringing to fruition those ideals it claims to promote: freedom, dignity, and respect for human life. Now that the one person whom they so forcefully rallied against has been relegated to the dustbin of history, how will they move forward together in pursuit of these ideals?

I wish that the story had played out differently today, and that Qaddafi had been captured, not killed. Like many others, I wanted him to be held accountable in a court of justice. My heart sank as confirmation of his death came in, and I recalled ruefully one of the wittier answers I'd heard over the past few months to a question that Libyans had only recently dared to ask: How should Qaddafi be made to answer for his crimes? Don't execute him, the individual responded, jokingly. Instead, put him in a room with a small television set with a live feed to the heart of Tripoli, and force him to watch Libyans go on living their lives without him.

Knowing Muammar, nothing in this world would have distressed him more -- not even death.