Special Report

What Intifada?

In Gaddafi's view, violent rebellions are for faraway places. But Sarkozy knows better.

By 3.11.11

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You can view the Arab revolt globally or locally, with the understanding that all politics is local and that you can act locally while thinking globally. However, these days the one thing we know about the United States government is that it can express high minded global thoughts and locally it has no thoughts at all.

According to the latest reports, both the rebels based in Libya's major eastern city, Benghazi, and the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi, trying to break out of its Tripoli bunkers and seize the initiative, have sought, by diplomacy and attacks on oil flows, to internationalize what very quickly became a civil war, or perhaps more accurately -- we cannot be sure -- a war by the regime against its own people. Gaddafi, who claims he is fighting al Qaeda and who has placed a monetary reward on the head of the leader of the Libyan National Council of Transition, may have been encouraged by the tough stances taken by governments in Algeria and Yemen and Bahrain; he may have real support among his own tribesmen and others who benefited from the largesse made possible by Libya's huge oil revenues; in any case, intifadas are for faraway places.

In American political journalism the word intifada usually is taken to refer to violent rebellions against Israel launched by Palestinians, in 1987-1993 and 2001-2005. Depending on the observer, these were repressed with too much, or insufficient, force by Israel's army. Again depending on the observer, they were eruptions of widespread frustration by Palestinians in the occupied territories, or they were strategically organized by the Palestinian leadership under Yassir Arafat to torpedo progress toward a "two-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine dispute.

What is not in dispute is that there have been no Palestinian intifadas since Israel in fact if not by formal treaty encouraged the Palestinians to work toward a state of their own. Israel resists the idea of proclaiming an independent state under the Palestinian Authority, successor to the PLO and governing authority in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, because it wants in exchange an unambiguous proclamation by the Palestinians of its own rights, beginning with its right to exist.

However, intifada, which means revolt, or uprising, and the connotation of which is a sloughing off or discharging of an oppressive burden, is not specific to the Palestinians. The Iraqi charismatic Shiite anti-American leader, Moktar el-Sadr, referred to his violent attacks on our troops, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein, as an intifada; many observer agree that his militias worked at the behest of Iran. Denouncing us as unwanted occupiers, he exploited the widespread sentiment, also, that we would not adequately promote Shiite security and interests against the Sunni minority on which the Saddam regime was based (even as it too, along with Shiites and Kurds, suffered under his tyrannical rule).

Intifada had been used, as well, to describe movements in Mesopotamia in the difficult transition period between the end of British colonial control and the security-terrorist regimes that befell the downtrodden peoples of Iraq and Syria, following weak attempts at constitutional monarchy and comparatively benign military-led systems.

The Sahrawis, who have been engaged in a long dispute with the Moroccans over control of the ex-Spanish colony of Western Sahara, described demonstrations in 2005 as an intifada; the term, however, did not resurface when demonstrations, calling for civil rights and brutally repressed, took place in November of last year in La'ayoune, their principal city. Demonstrators in Kabylie, a region in Algeria known for its recalcitrant, autonomist tendencies, used the term democracy intifada during demonstrations in 2000-01. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 was at first called the independence intifada, a reference to the de-facto control of Lebanon by Syria (blamed for the assassination of President Rafi Hariri), as well as the insidious influence exerted by Iran by way of its Hezbollah subsidiary.

The term democracy intifada, has been heard across North Africa and the Middle East lately, though perhaps not as often as words like change and democracy. What political principles, what goals, are subsumed under these terms surely varies; whether they represent appeals to Western governments or to modernizing elites as well as ordinary people interested in jobs and dignity and the end of arbitrary government, or both, is not known. However, a delegation representing the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council of Transition traveled to Paris this week to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who promptly recognized the LNC as the legitimate Libyan government. Sarkozy has expressed support for enforcing a no-fly zone to counter Gaddafi's air-power, which has been used quite ruthlessly against the insurgents, as has been his superior artillery. British P.M. David Cameron expressed support for a no-fly zone as well; the European Union and the U.S. have been more circumspect, while announcing that all options are "on the table." The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, widely believed to represent the thinking on foreign policy of America's top bankers and businessmen, said through its president Richard Haass that Libya is not a good choice for American intervention.

Of the Arab countries in political upheaval, Libya might be the first to see an intervention of foreign troops; the ambivalence shown on all sides toward such a development is shown by the contradictory statements flying in every direction. It goes beyond the nervousness on the insurgent side, which came out when it mistook a British political-military team sent to inquire about what, if any, help was desired for a hostile spying mission.

Gaddafi himself has not been passive on the diplomatic front, sending emissaries to several European capitals. The fighting continues, meanwhile, with pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces trying to gain as much territory in advance of what both sides hint will be a negotiated end-game.

In reality, no one knows what the end-game will be, here or in any other country. This year's intifadas are far from over in Tunisia and Egypt, where they began, and it is by no means clear what kind of democracy, if any, will be attained. Violence or the threat of violence appear to be behind the governments' offers, in such widely different places as Yemen and Morocco, to work toward substantial constitutional reforms. Saudi Arabia's government hints at small incremental changes while using guns against demonstrators.

In the view of Bernard Lewis, the most distinguished historian of Islam in the English-speaking world, there are reasons to believe in happy outcomes. These, he says, depend on keeping the Muslim Brotherhoods out of power (notably in Egypt where they are well-organized) and giving people time to develop habits of democratic governance through the kinds of consultative assemblies, starting at the local level, that in various forms were common in the Arabo-Islamic world before the colonial period and the tyrannical regimes that ensued.

In the short term, the battle for Libya will shape ideas of what directions the upheavals in the Arab world may take, not least among the Arabs themselves. The Libyan insurgents against the dictator are adamant that they will not seek to divide the country. But they were also adamant only a few days ago that they wanted no outside interference, at most some humanitarian aid. Reportedly, they asked for air support and weapons when they met with the French president; it is not inconceivable that they should eventually opt for a federal union of the country's three major provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenea, and Fezza, somewhat on the model of the federal monarchy of Idris I that Gaddafi overthrew in 1969.

Federalism would, in fact, be closer to the consultative governance of Arab tradition, evoked by Professor Lewis, than anything the Arabs have known since before the colonial era. Vigorous local government may be the way for people to learn, or re-learn, habits of self-government which in turn lead to constitutional regimes that are respected. It may be worth recalling that before the French took over Tunisia in the 1880s, the beys of Tunis (nominally under Ottoman authority but largely independent) had developed a constitutional system that formally separated mosque and state, which is one reason why the post-French independent Tunisia of Habib Bourguiba was able to pursue reforms in a liberal and modernizing direction (one that promoted women's educational and professional, as well as political, advancement).

However, Bourguiba did not go fast enough, or his reforms only touched the Tunis elites, or there were other impediments. The same sort of broad-brush generalization could be made of Libya, a far more primitive country where the anti-Italian resistance was fierce, courageous, and largely pro-liberal. And yet, the inheritor of this resistance, Idris, who supported the Anglo-Americans during World War II and kept their friendship in the years following, could not prevent the regression represented by Gaddafi any more than the ailing (and reportedly senile) Bourguiba could prevent the regression represented by Zine Ben Ali.

Caught flat-footed in Tunisia, Nicolas Sarkozy may be eager to show the Arabs that France stands behind the "intifada of democracy"; he may also have the notion that if France averts its eyes from a Libyan bloodbath, there will be hell to pay somewhere down the road. He also knows that if France, or a Western coalition of the willing, intervenes, there also will be hell to pay somewhere down the road, if only in the form of a bill for the Arab resentments which, in their twisted ways, have motivated so much in Arab politics and political thinking.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.