Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Not So Fast On The Mideast High-Fiving

Qaddafi supporters rally in Sebratha, west of Tripoli
While I welcome the changes sweeping the Middle East as much as any freedom lover and the interim government in Egypt seems to be making good on its promises in particular, it is way too premature to pop the champagne corks.

Several developments make this so:

* The snail-like speed with which the international community has reacted to events in Libya, where strongman Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi is fighting back against pro-democracy forces with bullets and bombs.

Although I oppose armed intervention, the U.S.'s reaction has been particularly pathetic as it has only begun to move naval vessels toward Libya and freeze its $30 billion in assets two weeks after the revolt began.

* The absence of Al Qaeda as a player in regional developments, possibly because the terrorist group's stock in trade -- violence and religious fanaticism -- have been largely absent.

Some pundits are declaring that Al Qaeda is at a crossroads, but it is more likely that these jihadists eventually will find a way to exploit the disappointments that will inevitably follow the first flush of victory in some countries.

* In fact, religious fanatics have not suddenly disappeared in Egypt and elsewhere. It it just that news network cameras have created that impression by focusing on protesters who seem more Western than fundamentalist in appearance.

Bahrain, where the ruling elite sicced Sunni fanatics on Shiite demonstrators, is a case in point, while the exact opposed has occurred in Iraq with Shiites pouncing on Sunnis. And there is a movement to replace the presidential government with an Islamic state in Yemen.

* * * * *
The relationship between Western nations and Qaddafi, who has clung to power for 41 years, is especially problematic.

During those four long decades he has exported terrorism and repeatedly oppressed his own people, but the tut-tutting from European capitals in particular always has been undercut by the reality that Libya has the largest crude oil reserves in Africa. Qaddafi also has been adept at making some concessions, including dismantling his country's nascent nuclear and chemical weapons program.

And speaking of oil, it is widely believed that a popular uprising in Saudi Arabia, which has the world's largest reserves, would trigger a worldwide recession.

But there is a more fundamental problem:

Practitioners of realpolitik have preached that the Middle East is not ready for democracy and the attendant belief in human rights, as well as strongmen like Qaddafi being the only "bulwark
between the region and Islamic revolution," as The Economist puts it.

It will be instructive to revisit the pro-democracy movements in a few months to see if the cynics turn out to have been correct.

Photograph by Moises Saman for The New York Times

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