Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Arab World After Gadhafi

The flag of freedom flies high across Libya today. After only eight months, Libyan fighters liberated their country from Moammar Gadhafi, a tyrant who had waged war against his people for more than four decades.

Celebrations have rightly broken out in the public squares and plazas of Libya, but this happiness must be tempered by the momentous tasks that lie ahead for the Transitional National Council and for Libyans themselves. It will not be easy to build a just and tolerant society overnight in a country that did not experience the rule of law for 42 years. But the march must begin, even if the journey is long and arduous.

What happens in Libya has profound implications for an Arab world in flux. If Libyans can lay the foundation of an open and democratic society within the context of their tradition and renounce retribution in favor of rebuilding, neighboring Arab countries can rid themselves of their dinosaurs as well and move confidently toward an enlightened future. There will undoubtedly be mistakes and setbacks. Tribal animosities may flare. (The recent massacre of Egyptian Christians shows how horribly things can go wrong). But if the national council can forge a representative government, there is no limit to what the long-suffering Arab people can accomplish.

In a country of only 6 million, Libya was earning hundreds of millions of dollars from 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. But Gadhafi squandered it all. While the masses lived on crumbs, he lavished wealth and patronage on himself, his family and his sycophants, even as he stirred up trouble abroad. He had his gaudy uniforms, for instance, tailored in Paris. He justified these excesses by making his inane “The Green Book” the de facto constitution of Libya. Under his dictatorship, Libyans, with 0.27 barrels of oil per citizen per day, became poorer on the average than Mexicans, while the average Emirati (UAE), on 0.34 barrels of oil per citizen per day, became richer than the average American.

But that is now past. If Libyan leaders can quickly repair damages to the pipelines and ramp up oil production, it is estimated that the country can start earning as much as $80 million per day at today’s price. It will ease the way toward economic justice for ordinary Libyans. The government will need billions of dollars to steer their country toward the modern age but it has to be cautious because the vultures are already circling.

While Libya scrambles to put its political and economic houses in order, Arabs beyond Libya are rejoicing as well.

One Arab leader, in particular, has been put on notice: Syria’s Bashar Assad. This dictator has been receiving master lessons from Gadhafi on how to put down mass uprisings. Now that his hero has been dispatched after being dragged from a rat hole, Assad must be wondering about his own fate. He, along with Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, knows that tyrannies are doomed, that hereditary power is history. Syrians and Yemenis are emboldened by the feat of the Libyans and will go all out to overthrow their despots, despite the terrible sacrifices they will undoubtedly have to make.

The larger issue is one of a renaissance in the Arab world. In a sense, the entire Arab world has been caught in a knowledge time-warp for decades. Despite earning trillions of petro-dollars, there has been no world-class discovery or invention from this part of the world in recent times due to bad governance, misplaced priorities and politicized religion. Yet we know that the Golden Age of the Arabs from the 9th through the 13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine. Muslim scientists invented algebra, explained principles of optics, demonstrated the body's circulation of blood, named stars, built observatories and created universities.

The situation today? Here is one grim statistics: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with 57 member states, claims only 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It is possible that as freedom flowers and representative governments take shape in these countries, a new generation of young people will rise to meet the challenges of the 21st century in science, art and technology.

The Gadhafis and the Assads of the world pour poison on the aspirations of their people. They keep them chained to the dark impulses of the soul. As equality, justice, dignity and freedom blossom among Arabs, can a renaissance be far behind?

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