I am writing this on a Sunday, when Tunisia goes to the polls and the western-backed National Transition Council in Libya announces that the country is liberated and ready for democracy. This, while human rights activists allege that nothing much has changed in Tunisia since its hated dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled in January. Meanwhile, Moammar Gadhafi’s body lies in a refrigerated meat shop in the town of Misrata, amid confusion over what to do with the corpse -- hand it over to his tribe, or bury it at sea. In Egypt, the interim military government is still mulling over the transition to democracy; and they have been mulling for a long time.
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Winter is setting in, and it increasingly appears that it will take quite a bit longer for the Arab spring to bear healthful fruit.
A Tunisian woman shows ink on her finger after voting in the al-Aouina suburb north of Tunis. (AP photo)
Gadhafi’s death is hardly the end of the story for Libya. Eastern and western Libya don’t particularly like each other. Western Libyans are already chagrined that the liberation declaration is being made in Benghazi, in the east, and not Tripoli, the capital (the logic for selection of the venue is that the revolution started from Benghazi), and complain that it was after all they, not the Easterners, who took Tripoli and killed Gadhafi. Fierce tribal loyalties that had been kept in check by Gadhafi’s iron hand could now come to the surface again, as also political discordance about the way forward. Disagreements between level of representation of civilians and the armed fighters in the new government are also inevitable.
And of course, there’s all that oil, which brought the US and NATO into the conflict (Point to note: Benghazi is where the oil is). NATO fighter aircraft were supposed to only impose a no-fly zone, but it seems clear that French airplanes and a US Predator drone were involved in the location and final chase of Gadhafi’s convoy that ended with his death.
From Tunisia, there are consistent reports that Ben Ali may no longer be around, but his cronies and cohorts very much are. Corruption may have increased, and arbitrary arrests and police torture continue. The judiciary is still manned by people from the old regime, and the media is as muzzled as ever. Unemployment has been soaring -- the actual state of affairs is estimated to be far worse than the official 19% figure. No one party is expected to get anywhere near a majority, but the Islamists will almost certainly get the largest chunk of votes.
In Egypt, there are growing doubts whether the military rulers actually hand over power to civilians. And even if there are elections, a military-security regime running a country from behind a democratic façade is hardly something new. The military has extended emergency law in the country, and some 12,000 people have been arrested, to be tried by military courts. Many human rights organizations are being investigated for “treason”. The US, afraid that the Islamists could come to power, has been tacitly approving the generals’ go-slow tactics. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already said that the elections should have “an appropriate timetable”.
Meanwhile, in Syria, 11 people were killed on Saturday, bringing the total to over 3,000, according to United Nations estimates—most of the dead being civilians. On the same day, Reuters reported at least 10 people killed in Yemen. The Yemeni government, however, said it was ready to “deal positively” with a resolution approved by the UN Security Council on Friday that urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign a deal requiring him to step down in exchange for immunity. “Deal positively”, of course, could mean anything or nothing at all.
Clearly, the revolution in the Middle East remains a very unfinished project.