The bloody upheavals in Libya and the bumbling of the opposition in Bahrain illustrate that these disturbances in the Arab world are much less homogeneous than has been widely thought. Neither is a poor country: Libya’s 6.6 million people have a per capita income of about $13,000, low by Western standards, inexcusably so given their oil resources, but far from grindingly poor. The average life expectancy is about 77 and the literacy rate is about 90 percent. The country’s problem is that for 42 years it has been despotically governed by a psychotic transvestite. Bahrain has about a fifth of Libya’s population, and a little better than twice its per capita income; its women are emancipated; and it is a relatively free country. But it is a majority Shiite country governed entirely by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family in a comparatively gentle but unmistakably authoritarian manner.
The gradations of discontent in any political disturbance are approximately: first, strikes and widespread demonstrations; second, widespread violence and civil disorder; third, direct attacks on the leadership; fourth, the overthrow by physical armed takeover of the instruments of government and the arrest, rout, or execution of the leaders. If the first phase can be solved by negotiations, as is being attempted in Bahrain, where the opposition is having difficulty organizing a negotiating side, it isn’t much of a groundswell. Where fire hoses, truncheons, and rubber or plastic bullets suffice to end the demonstrations, the public tends to be a bit peevish for a while, but a few gestures go a long way and the problems are manageable. (Where the government is legitimately elected, a combination of an election to let off steam, and official force to prevent chaos, usually suffices, unless there is massive foreign intervention.)
Once we are into stage two, the army is usually needed and some people are going to be killed. The litmus tests are: Will the regime order the use of live ammunition on crowds, and will the orders be carried out? If the answers to those questions are positive, only a very well-organized and fervent opposition will succeed. If the answer to either question is negative — as in the cases of Louis XVI, the Shah, and Mubarak not asking for deadly fire on demonstrators, or Romania’s Ceausescu demanding it in 1989, and being arrested and summarily executed instead (by an immense firing squad, so numerous were the volunteers) — the regime is doomed.
In Libya, we have gone beyond stage two, as Gaddafi has ordered deadly assaults on his opponents and has publicly boasted that they will be killed, and the orders have been partially carried out, and partially have resulted in mutinies. We are now, as this is written, waiting to see if the opposition in Libya is strong enough to surmount official violence, cause the defection of large numbers of the armed forces, and win the armed struggle in what then becomes a civil war, if chiefly between factions of the armed forces and state police. This was how Juan Perón was forced out of power in 1955, though he enjoyed immense support in some parts of the Argentine population and returned after 19 years.
But to the extent, which should not be exaggerated, that this is a rippling wave of unrest throughout the Arab or broader Muslim world, both Libya and Bahrain pack an important message. If Gaddafi cannot prevail with his loyalist forces, regardless of whether he survives personally or not, that could embolden the opposition in Iran. The Persian tradition is far more sophisticated than the Nubian (Libyan) one, and in the agitations over the fraudulent elections in Iran two years ago, the Iranian army did not fire on demonstrators; the thuggish elite guard of the governing movement did. Their resources would not be unlimited, and they could not deal with any mutiny in the armed forces. If the Iranians see Gaddafi put to flight or executed, despite the savagery with which his partisans tried to snuff out the revolt, they will realize how close they may be to evicting the whole hideous theocracy that has degraded Iran. Repulsive and psychotic though he is, Gaddafi has provided good government compared to Ahmadinejad. And in Iran, the opposition includes some of the most powerful people in the country, such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The lesson of Bahrain’s perturbations is that when a country is prosperous, its people want freedom. The takeaway message of non-democratic government in the last 50 years is that those who put democracy ahead of economic development just get back to despotism, and economic progress is spotty (as in Russia). Those who put economic development first, achieve prosperity and then democracy, as South Korea, Chile, Taiwan, and even Spain have shown. China need not have overreacted so severely at Tiananmen in 1989, and would have done just as well doing what the Bahrain government is doing, and clearing the square without killing anyone. But gradually, as in South Korea and Taiwan, freedom comes.
I have written here many times that the “Arab street” is bunk. All those leaders know how to deal with mobs, provided that the mobs are just whipped-up, choreographed armies of boobs waving Palestinian flags, or provided that — if the mobs are more purposeful — whatever repression is necessary can be carried out discreetly. Israel is, in the end, a red herring to the whole Muslim world, useful to distract the same masses from the almost uniform misgovernment inflicted on them. And as other commentators have pointed out, the absence of Palestinian flags in all these demonstrations has been deeply gratifying, and significant. But where the late presidents Hafez Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq massacred thousands of people at a stroke and prevailed, these were partly described as tribal quarrels and therefore somewhat time-honored methods of problem-solving, and were carried out in times when it was much easier to keep the public-relations lid on such outrages than is now possible.
It is unlikely that whatever government emerges in Egypt will be a significant change from what Egypt has had, unless someone there understands the need for economic growth and tries to replicate, as much as is possible in a tropical Muslim country, the South Korean model. But where governments are so brutal and incompetent that the people are disgusted and the elites want real change, all things are possible. When the Libyan air force defects and air-force colonels fly their own jets to Malta rather than bomb their countrymen, and the eastern part of the country has ejected the regime, Gaddafi’s hold is very tenuous. And the colonel is unlikely to damp down skepticism by telling the world, as he just did: “These are reactionary cowards. Libya wants glory. Europe and Asia and all continents will be led by Libya. We are more qualified than others. . . . Libya will lead America, lead Asia, lead the whole world. . . . I will be a martyr in the end.” May the end come quickly.
There is one other aspect of this sequence of events that is noteworthy: No outsiders to the region have played an effective role. The need for the United States to involve itself in these places, and its ability to do so, are almost over. It has a role with Israel and the moderate Arabs, but it is only to assure the permanence of Israel as a last resort. Russia doesn’t threaten Western Europe, and couldn’t if it wished to. China, for all its bombast about predestined hegemony, will be contained, politically and economically (there will be no clash of arms), by a Japanese-Indian-Indonesian and probably Russian alliance, with Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan also. Latin America has absorbed Venezuela; the Castros have become non-Communist environmentalists. No one is threatened by Morales (Bolivia) or the Ecuadorian, Rafael Correa (who imagined he was the target of a coup when police took him to the hospital after demonstrating when he canceled the gift of a house and a medal with each promotion in the senior ranks). American intervention in Honduras, a country with a tenth of the population and a quarter of the per capita national income of Egypt, last year, was on the wrong side and, fortunately, a total failure. The soufflé of American world supremacy has fallen at the time that it has become surplus to requirements. The United States must renovate itself.