The Al Jazeera revolution
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August 29th, 2011
11:48 AM ET

The Al Jazeera revolution

Editor’s Note: Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

By Shashank Joshi – Special to CNN’s Global Public Square

There is some way to go in Libya – but Tripoli has all but fallen, and only a few major centers of resistance remain standing. Why did the Libyan war get here, rather than withering into just one more of the abortive coups and rebellions that have flecked Colonel Gadhafi’s forty-two years in power? After all, the same British special forces now hunting the deposed leader were, scarcely a few years ago, training his elite troops. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. government authorized $71 million in arms sales to Libya.

In understanding how the fall of Tripoli will create its own ripples, we have to understand why Libya was affected in the first place. Longstanding political economy grievances were certainly present, but these had not suddenly worsened. And despite widespread accounts of the Twitter revolution, the answer is not social media. Only 5.5 percent of Libya enjoys Internet access and a pitiful 0.96 percent is on Twitter.

Rather, much older media - satellite television - was more important. Since the middle of the 1990s, stations like Al Jazeera shattered the old state monopoly on information and supported what came to be called a new, vibrant and self-critical "Arab public sphere". Images of mass mobilization and brutal repression echoed around that public sphere. Few in Cairo could ignore Tunis' jubilation, and the shelling of Hama was felt in Amman - even if differences of religion, ethnicity and nationalism remain.

This is one of the crucial reasons that regime change in Libya will resonate far outside the country and the Maghreb. The sense of shared Arab concerns, and perhaps even a common fate, has sharpened over the past six months. Take Yemen: its uprising has stalled after the flight of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia. Yemen's state has nearly disintegrated, and it is al Qaida, not young revolutionaries, that have filled the vacuum in the south. But despite these setbacks, events in Tripoli prompted huge celebrations in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, as well as in other provinces across the country. They marked the occasion by shouting "congratulations to the Libyan people" and compared President Saleh's son to Colonel Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. The same solidarity was evident in Syria too, where one crowd explicitly warned: "Gadhafi is gone, now it's your turn, Bashar!"

This transnational inspiration is familiar to those who remember the collapse of the Soviet Union's empire. On that occasion there was a common wellspring of repression: Moscow. In today's Middle East, each autocrat is repressive in their own way - foreign troops in Bahrain, urban assaults in Syria, civilian-clothed thugs in Egypt - but a common strand of resistance has nonetheless emerged.

None of this means either Syria or Yemen will fall. The former's army remains unified and obedient, and the latter may well collapse rather than democratize. And NATO, whose intervention was nothing short of decisive in propelling Libya's revolutionaries into the capital, will stay on the sidelines in Syria. But we cannot ignore these pan-Arab currents without missing an important part of the Arab Spring. Protests in Georgia in 2004, Ukraine in 2005 and Iran in 2009 did not set off the Arab world. Tunisia, in 2011, did.

In the longer-term, there may be other demonstration effects at work. Turkey's flawed but maturing democracy, led by the enormously popular Islamist AK party, already functions as a valuable example of how Islam and democracy might fit together. When Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, visited Benghazi's Tahrir Square (named after the famous square in Egypt), the crowd chanted "Erdogan, Turkey, Muslim."  Davutoglu, an architect of Turkey's intense engagement with the Arab world, observed, "We have a common future and a history." In time, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya may themselves offer lessons - both positive and cautionary - to co-Arabs.

An important part of that process will be how non-Arabs fit into the story. In Libya, the Berbers (or Amazigh), who are the indigenous people of North Africa, played an instrumental role in the fighting. When Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) drafted an interim constitution, it pointedly dropped the word "Arab" from the document altogether, something that was a central part of the 1969 constitution. Morocco, trying to stave off protest in June, even recognized Amazigh as an official language. In Egypt, Copts (Egyptian Christians) constitute a tenth of the population. In Syria, Kurds are the same proportion. As notionally-Arab democracies develops over the coming years and decades, it may have to contend with popular prejudices towards these and other minorities.

In the 1960s, Pan-Arabism was one of the region's dominant ideologies. It held that the Arab people were one nation, and therefore ought therefore to become a single political entity. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq even made a couple of ill-fated attempts at unifying. Those projects fell apart in the 1970s, and Arab politics congealed into the pattern of stagnancy and national authoritarianism that persisted into this year. Tunisia's revolution was a political earthquake, and the aftershocks toppled two more leaders. As we reflect on the demise of the Arab world's longest serving ruler, it is important to remember that Libya is part of a region whose organic connections are the most expansive and vibrant they have been for a half-century.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shashank Joshi.

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Topics: Media • Middle East • Revolution

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The Al Jazeera is based in Doha, the capital of Qatar. How impartial is Al Jazeera? Is it financed by the al-Thani ruling dynasty in Qatar? In the early days of the uprising in Libya, Qatar stood by the rebels alongside with France and Britain. No doubt, the Al Jazeera has been responsible for the ripple effect of the democratisation movement across the region sparked by the Arab Spring. So much so, that it made the CNN effect during the first Gulf War in1991 look bleak.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  2. khaled

    assad will not falls in easy way because assad clan fight as a religius duty they will not care for the Sanctions . and iran support him with billions of dollars . he has 120000 of alawit soliders just under his brother maher . Except for the security forces which are alawite 95% . so he will not fall if there are no Military strikes . also the Military strikes will Encourage the other soliders to Defecting the army . IF THE WORLD DONT STAND WITH THE PROTESTERS THEY WILL BE KILLED FOR THE FUTUER . AND IRAN WILL BE STRONGER AND AMERICANS Existence WILL BE AT RISK.AND THE SYRIAN REGIME WILL FEEL STRONGER SO ISRAEL WILL BE ON IRANIAN LIST AND IT IS NOT SECRET THAT IRAN About to MAKE NUCLEAR BOMB . O AMERICA IT IS NOT ABOUT OIL IT IS ABOUT EXISTENCE .

    August 30, 2011 at 4:17 am | Reply

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