We have had so many examples of the bad sides of human nature in the last few weeks (Libya, Yemen, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and the international response to many of the problems in each place, just for starters), that I’d like to take a minute to honor those who show the best of us.

Saturday’s Le Monde had some excellent articles on the nuclear problems at Fukushima; several of them focused on the workers (one with a nice look back at the workers still alive from the Chernobyl disaster).  One of those articles mentioned that among the heroes working at Fukushima are about 20 people who had been evacuated from the site when the problem started, but who volunteered to go back to help seal off the plant.  As the article said, most of them believe they are giving up their lives for the sake of the nation.  If you look at the news on Libya or Yemen (etc.) and despair, consider for a moment the astounding courage and selflessness of these volunteers, and, indeed, of the fire fighters and nuclear plant workers who risk their lives in what Le Monde called “terrifying conditions”, to prevent a meltdown.

Egyptian Constitution

As shock and awe night arrives for Libya, let us not lose sight of what’s going on in Egypt and elsewhere.  Saleh (Yemen) made the kind of ridiculous public statement about the mass murder of demonstrators that one expects from an out-of-touch autocrat.  Further proof, if any were needed, that he is on his way out.

As for Egypt, the constitutional change will surely pass, but it will be interesting to see by how much.  If it gets more than 70% yes (my guess, in the neighborhood of 80%), then we will have witnessed the complete marginalization of those who made the revolution.  Whatever they thought about the changes (which are reasonable enough, even though they are far from sufficient), I think they should have realized the changes would pass and that opposing them will just marginalize their movement.  The MB figured that out, and supports the changes.  If that scenario plays out, the two clear winners - the 'reformed' Mubarak party and the MB - can then dominate the Parliamentary elections, if the reformers don't move quickly.

The judge heading the Const Commission has set it up so the new Parliament comes first (June), then the President.  If they keep the two-round system, it will put the MB in a fascinating bargaining position.  They can cut a deal with the opposition groups, or with the old gov't forces.  I'm guessing the MB will hold the balance in most districts, because the other two groups cannot make a deal with each other.

If the yes gets more than 65%, the reform guys better get it in gear and start cutting a deal with the MB (and they had better monitor closely, district by district, what the result in the constitutional vote is).  Preempt the MB from making a deal with the Mubarakites. The MB, as the best organized force, may well cut localized deals, to ensure itself a position of strength - not necessarily a majority, which may be unattainable, but a group of deputies large enough to prevent any substantive action without their support - in the new Parliament.

Ok, reformers, how about a simple deal?  In a district in which the No gets 10 percentage points or more greater than the national average, the reformers get to run the joint candidate; in a district in which the No gets 20% or less of the vote, the joint candidate comes from the MB; in the districts between those figures, both groups run candidates in round one and the top vote-getter between them gets to run in round two.  Just a suggestion.

Tea leaf reading: Yemen falls

Reading the Tea Leaves: Yemen Falls

From an e-mail sent to my colleague Osama Abi-Mershed, on Jan 15, 2011: “I think of all the conversations I've been having with Marcus Rediker [renowned historian of the 18th-century Atlantic World, whose most recent (prizewinning) book, Slave Ship, has been an international sensation], going back at least 5 years, about living in a revolutionary moment, with the entire system on the brink.  I'm more convinced than ever that such is true, and that one sees it in little things as much as big ones.”

[Ok, I exaggerated, Marcus and I have been having those conversations since fall 2008.  From 28 Jan 2011 e-mail to Marcus: “seems to me we have been talking for the last two or three years about how revolution is at hand.  nice to see our historical training wasn't wasted.”]

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.” Osama and I have been convinced since the second week of January that Ben Ali would fall, that Egypt would follow Tunisia (a point made in that same 15 January e-mail), that the events of January 2011 to the present are a Revolution, not local regime crises.  Those who have seen the C-Span video know that we urged media to shift from the term “crisis” to “Revolution” and that, likely by coincidence, places like CNN and al-Jazeera did so later in that week.

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.”

A recent story in the NY Times, one remarkably convenient from the standpoint of US policymakers btw, that presidents like Ben Ali and Mubarak would fall, but that monarchs (of whatever title) would survive (because they can blame and dismiss governments), seems premature, to say the least.  The monarchs of places like Bahrain and Oman may well survive, but Revolutions have no problem disposing of monarchs (alas for revolutionaries, the monarchs sometimes come back, albeit in drastically changed institutional frameworks).

What do the tea leaves say about Yemen?  Saleh, personally, is almost certain to go.  Yemen differs dramatically from Tunisia and Egypt, however, in that what will replace his regime is highly unlikely to be what is possible (but far from definite) in places like Tunisia.  {See post on What’s Next, Doc?}  In this post, I’ll look mainly to discourse; in the second post, you can see what a longue durée approach will tell us.

Tea leaf reading 101.

First, look for evidence within regime rhetoric of cognitive dissonance on the part of rulers.  Ben Ali’s regime showed those signs on January 13th (Ben Ali parliamentarian, on an al-Jazeera panel) and, of course, on January 14th, the night Ben Ali warbled his swan song.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Just as the Tunisian deputy’s idiotic rant about “foreign” agents and criminals – idiotic precisely because everyone was watching the actual demonstrations on YouTube, so we all knew she was full of a barnyard substance – marked cognitive dissonance, so, too President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ridiculous charges that Israel is orchestrating the Revolution of 2011 warns that the end of his regime is nigh.  Saleh, relying on the old accuse-your-enemies-of-what-you-are-doing trick, also claims the US is behind the Revolution, and particularly behind the demonstrations in Yemen.  Given that Saleh’s government cooperates with US efforts to combat al Qaeda in Yemen (which John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser, with special responsibility for homeland security and counterterrorism, claimed in mid December 2010 was more dangerous than al Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan), we get a sense of Saleh’s desperation in making such a claim.  The use of anti-Semitism by Arab autocrats is another classic diversion.

Saleh, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, does not understand the new media age.  Relying on their control of state media – tv, radio – they cannot even imagine what it means to have some ordinary Yemeni or Tunisian or Egyptian reach thousands, even millions of people around the world with video of police brutality, at the touch of a button.  Being in power for 30 years, they have become far more out-of-touch than, say, someone like Pres. George H.W. Bush infamously showed himself to be during the 1992 election campaign (after he had spent 12 years as either Vice-President  or President): what American of a certain age can forget Bush’s amazement at encountering a scanner at the supermarket check-out line?  Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Qaddafi – all of them were in power in 1981, too.  Is it any wonder that in 2011 they have long since lost touch with the societies they have been looting?  Saleh’s Israel comment is his checkout scanner moment.

So, they speak of “foreign terrorists” (all four of them), of al Qaeda (Qaddafi), of an Israeli plot (Saleh).  They make contradictory accusations, because they must appeal to varied audiences – to their own people, to the West, to the UN.  This kind of rhetorical inanity is a sure sign of pending regime collapse.

Second, watch for the desertion of key establishment religious figures, another certain sign of desperate times for a ruler.  We saw that in Egypt: when the leader of Al-Azhar in Cairo abandoned Mubarak, his regime was over.  In Libya, we have seen the major religious figures forsake Qaddafi – he’s still holding on to power in a small area, and will doubtless still cause the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, but his regime is finished.  In Yemen, yesterday, Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani openly sided with the protesters.  Clerics of whatever denomination, particularly those in positions of authority, must be very cautious in political upheavals, lest their “church” suffer for their indiscretion.  When they come out against a government, the government is on the brink of collapse.

Third, watch for the practical problems created by the cognitive dissonance (#1). When a government offers reconciliation, as Mubarak did by offering to step down in September 2011, and then orders a brutal crackdown the next day, thereby destroying what little credibility they might have had among non-demonstrators, they must go.  How many middle-aged people interviewed by al-Jazeera, BBC, et alia after Mubarak’s fall mentioned the cavalry episode in Tahrir Square as the turning point for them?  Of the ones I saw (between 10 and 20), all of them.

Saleh’s “Israel” charge means he is about to crack down, hard [writing here on Tuesday morning]: tying the demonstrators to Israel is an effort to dehumanize them, thus making it easier to justify killing them.  (Think of Qaddafi’s “cockroaches” comment, followed by use of aircraft to spread “pesticides,” in this case, for human cockroaches, bombs and bullets.)  The repudiation of Saleh’s regime by a leading cleric – known to all, thanks to modern media – will instantly trump the Israel card.

From Ben Ali to Saleh, the dictators have all blamed the media, especially al-Jazeera.  In a sense, they are right: the problem is precisely that the tyrants do not understand modern media.  I keep hearing Strother Martin telling Paul Newman, before administering yet another brutal beating in Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”  For Saleh, having failed with the only verbal language he knows, having failed with the language of patronage (the money he distributed to tribal leaders last week), he will have to turn to tyrantspeak: murder.  My guess is that message won’t get through, either.

TFR Table

Country Outcome TFR 1990-95 TFR 2010-15
Full Transition to Democracy 1990-2010 


Argentina 2.9 2.2
Brazil 2.6 1.7
Indonesia 2.9 2.0
Turkey 2.9 2.1
Partial transition to Democracy 1990-2010
Philippines 4.1 2.9
Likely transition to democracy
Tunisia 3.1 1.8
Partial transition to constitutional rule (dem or const monarchy)
Bahrain 3.4 2.1
Morocco 3.7 2.3
Algeria 4.1 2.3
Slower transition to const. gov’t
Libya 4.1 2.5
Jordan 5.1 2.8
Egypt 3.9 2.7
Oman 6.3 2.8
Little or no chance for democracy
Iraq 5.8 3.7
Yemen 7.7 4.7
Afghanistan 8.0 6.3
1979 Revolution
Iran 7.0 in 1980 1.7

TFR, selected countries, political outcomes in the last 30 years; possible outcomes in 2011

Source of data:  UNDP, Human Development Report, 2010, accessed at hdr.undp.org/

Data on Iran in 1976-80 from a UN document: Mohammed Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, “RECENT CHANGES AND THE FUTURE OF FERTILITY IN IRAN”, p. 1; the rate was only 6.0 in 1976.  http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/completingfertility/2RevisedABBASIpaper.PDF

What’s next, Doc?

What’s Next, Doc?

If we can get away from politics for a moment, to look at two developmental factors, total fertility rate and education, we can get some hints about what is possible in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere.  I have posted a table with all TFR figures.

Total fertility rate (TFR - number of children that would be born to a woman of a given age cohort if she lived through her entire range of fertile years).

In an advanced post-industrial society, a TFR of 2.1 means a stable population; the US has roughly this level (higher among immigrants, lower among indigenous population, especially indigenous white population); Western Europe and Japan are often down around 1.3 to 1.5, which means their native population is declining.

The TFR places Tunisia within the European pattern, at 1.71 (France is 2, Germany is 1.4).  Egypt and Libya remain higher, 2.7 and 2.5, but continued to trend down, much as places like India (2.5) and Brazil (1.7) have done over the last generation, as they move to the profile of an industrial society transforming into a post-industrial one (the rate in the US in the 1960s, for example, was 2.65).  Among the other countries that have had some recent unrest, Algeria, Bahrain, and Morocco have a TFR of between 2.1 and 2.3, while Jordan and Oman are 2.8.  Yemen, in contrast, has the profile of a pre-industrial society: 4.7.

Among functioning world democracies, the high end of the TFR is India.  A Middle Eastern country that has transitioned both demographically and political in the last 20 years, Turkey, fits a profile similar to that of Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina, all of which dropped from just under 3 in 1990 to around 2 today.

In terms of demographic statistics, Tunisian belongs to Western Europe.  Look for Tunisia to make an effective and rapid transition to real democracy.

Jordan, Oman, and Egypt probably go into the category of a place like the Philippines (2.9), which has a very fragile democratic system and continuing problems with local warlordism.  Some sub-Saharan African countries, like Nigeria and Kenya, have TFRs of 4 or even higher and have fragile democratic systems (as the Kenyan electoral violence showed three years ago), but we might look to Côte d’Ivoire (4) as an illustration of the difficulties of democracy in a place with relatively low literacy, low tertiary education levels, continuing gender differentiation in education, and a high TFR.  Egypt and Jordan do have solid educational statistics for this level of development, which bodes well for a more effective transition.

Note to American policymakers:  Afghanistan has a TFR of 6.3; Iraq has a TFR of  3.7.  The chances of real constitutional democracy in either are low; in Afghanistan, with its dismal educational statistics and grotesque discrimination against women, the chances are zero.  Iraq at least has decent educational numbers and did have (prior to 2003) a positive picture on gender discrimination.  Afghanistan ranks close to Yemen in discrimination against women and has dreadful education statistics: only 12.6% of women in Afghanistan can read.  “Exporting democracy” to such a place is literally impossible.

TFR highlights another country in the region: Iran has a TFR of 1.7 and high educational levels, yet has an autocratic government (a blend of theocracy and military state).  Iran’s government is really a throwback to the society Iran was in 1979 (TFR between 6 and 7); the problems they have had, and continue to have, reflect the fact that Iran’s government no longer accurately reflects its society.  The numbers suggest Iran’s current system will collapse under its own weight sometime in the next decade, indeed, quite possible even sooner.

Egypt, with its 82 million people, could follow the paths of Indonesia and Brazil, each of which since 1990 has moved away from:  1) a military-dominated political systems, 2) an under-educated population, 3) a catastrophic gender education imbalance, and 4) a TFR of 3.

Indonesia’s TFR dropped from 5.6 in the late 1960s, to 3.3 in the late 1980s, to 2.3 by 1999, and 2 today.  Brazil was also 3.3 in 1986, and 2.5 by 1994; today it’s down to 1.7. Both of them arguably went through the transition to effective democratic government as they moved from a TFR of 3.3 to one of about 2.3 (just above replacement level). Egypt’s TFR in 1990 was 4.6, so the current rate of 2.7 shows it going through a similar process in population dynamics.  Now it needs to have the political change.

The Tale of the TFR

IF, a big IF, the TFR proves to be an accurate indicator, we would expect the following outcomes:

Tunisia, functioning constitutional democracy

Egypt, Libya, Algeria, somewhat slower transition, but democratic elements, functioning democracy by about 2025

Yemen, continued autocratic rule (strongman, military, theocratic all possible)

Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, perhaps constitutional monarchies or democracies, developing a bit more slowly than Tunisia, with Bahrain in position to move the fastest.

Education and Gender Imbalance

The education statistics from Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen tell starkly different stories.  Tunisia’s average length of schooling is supposedly 15 years but surely at least 12; moreover, the rate for females slightly exceeds that for males.  Female literacy rates lag behind those of males (65 v 83%), but that discrepancy mainly reflects earlier gender discrimination.  In Egypt, school expectancy is 11 years, but UN statistics show that a significant proportion of Egyptians (on the order of 20%) do not get anything like that amount, and the nationwide average is more like 6 to 9 years.  Girls still face educational deficiencies.  Literacy rates are similar to those in Tunisia – 83% for males, 59% for females – but hide a generally much lower level of education among a large group of the population.

That said, both Tunisia (one-third) and Egypt (one-quarter) have a very impressive percentage of young women in the eligible population (first 5 years after the end of secondary education) enrolled in tertiary education.  Yemen, in contrast, has only 4% of eligible women enrolled in the tertiary sector, and only about one male in eight. (Afghanistan has 1%, yes 1%, enrolled in the tertiary sector.)  Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Libya all fall into pretty much the same categories in education as they do in TFR, because of the close correlation between female educational attainment and fertility (female educational level is the single most highly correlated socioeconomic variable in fertility rates).  Morocco lags behind on education, and Oman is last, both in education and TFR.

For effective democracy, it helps to have 30% of eligible students in the tertiary level, for the percentages of women and men to be about the same, and for average educational years to be roughly full secondary education (12).  The much-touted Western democracies got to these levels only in the 1960s.  It would be hard to argue that Western Europe, for example, had overwhelming success with democracy prior to that time and the US, while in some ways better, still essentially disenfranchised large numbers of blacks (mainly in the South) and the itinerant poor (almost everywhere) until the mid 1960s.

Tale of the Tertiary Sector

Tunisia, solid tertiary level, gender balance: democracy

Egypt, Libya, , Bahrain, Jordan, solid tertiary level, some continued gender imbalance in Egypt:  on the road to democracy.

Algeria lags a bit on the tertiary level, as does Oman.  Unclear outcome.

Morocco, lags in school years and has very poor tertiary statistics.  Gender balance is close to mainstream group:  slower progress toward constitutional monarchy.

Yemen, very poor tertiary level, grotesque gender imbalance (UN statistics show that Yemen has the worst gender discrimination inequalities in the world): autocracy

Overall assessment

Having looked at what the two categories on their own would imply, let’s put them together.  The two categories are pretty consistent.  Tunisia has great prospects for success, while reform, but of unclear extent, seems likely in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan.  Oman will likely lag a bit behind, and Yemen seems certain to slip into some sort of new autocratic regime and/or civil war.

Demographic and education data diverge a bit in some cases:  Morocco’s poor educational record will likely hold it back, while the TFR in Jordan, Oman, and Egypt is a bit high to fit the classic quick transition to more democratic government.  Oman also lies at the low end of the TFR outlook. Bahrain has an important religious division and large numbers of temporary migrant workers: they form about 1/3rd of Bahrain’s population, an ‘x’ factor not present in the other countries.  That said, Bahrain basic numbers are very good.

Transitions with limited violence, as in Egypt, Tunisian, and Bahrain (so far), have considerable advantages over those of higher violence and destruction, as in Libya.  Tunisia’s substantive constitutional reform committee, its recent dismissal of the tainted prime minister, and its underlying positive numbers should make it a model for democratization in the Arab world.  With determination and a bit of luck, the numbers say Egyptian reformers can pull it off, too, but it will be more difficult.

Combined Rating

Country                        TFR                                  Educ. years               Tertiary %               Gender = educ.

Tunisia        1.8                15*           32                    yes

Bahrain        2.1                14            30-50*                yes

Algeria        2.3                13            24                    yes

Morocco        2.3                10            13                    moving toward

Libya          2.5                17*           55                    yes

Egypt          2.7               “11” (prob.9)* 31                    no

Jordan         2.8                13            38                    close

Oman           2.8                12            26                    no

Iraq           3.7                10 [11m/8f]   16                    yes

Yemen          4.7                9 [11m/7f]    10                    no

Afghanistan    6.3                9 [11m/7f]*   1 (sic)              no

*The two Tunisian education numbers – level (15 years) and tertiary percentage (32%) – are contradictory, so I would guess years of education is overstated. For Bahrain, the two UN sources I consulted gave 30% and 50%; given the 14 years of education level, I suspect the 50% figure is more accurate.  I would also be certain that the figure refers only to Bahrainis, and excludes the large in-migrant population of workers.  Libya’s statistics are probably the least reliable, but the ability of children to go to school in Afghanistan has to be questioned, too.  For Egypt, I think 9 years is more accurate, because UN data show such a large group there (about 15-20%) essentially has no access at all to education.

No-fly zone, updated

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows, to judge from those calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.  I am generally a strong opponent of US military action abroad, but I think a no-fly zone is justified in this case, to prevent further massacres.  One recent evacuee from Libya claimed a single bombing session in Tripoli had killed 590 people, and overall casualty estimates have already mounted into the thousands.   As noted in an earlier post, the great complication with respect to a no-fly zone is the astonishing number of foreign workers in Libya.  If Qaddafi is ready to massacre his own people, we can only assume he’ll gladly do the same to foreigners.  Workers from poor countries, like Bangladesh (a reported 30,000), run particular risks, because they have no effective governmental protection.  To the extent that a no-fly zone will help limit Qaddafi’s forces to a much smaller geographic space, the advantages of no-fly for people like these Bangladeshis likely outweigh the risks of doing nothing.

If one accepts the need for a no-fly zone, how to get one over Libya?  First, all those Libyan diplomats who have resigned or, like the delegate to the UN Human Rights Council, have declared they now represent the Libyan people, and not the Qaddafi regime, could band together and demand that the international community protect Libyans from Qaddafi and his hired murderers.  Libyan Ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, could speak for his colleagues and make such a demand, aimed specifically at NATO.  Second, a delegation from the liberated Libyan cities like Benghazi could demand protection from the international community and place itself under the UN’s aegis.

Thumbs up to the UN HR Council for creating a committee to look into human rights violations in Libya.


Sitting in Paris, March 19th, first day of the no-fly zone.  The sad part is that taking so long has meant the air attack will be far more substantial than it would have been three weeks ago.  Based on previous no-fly zones, we can expect bombings of airports, air defense systems, command and control centers, and, in this case, perhaps naval resources, too.  This attack will also hit ground forces, given their proximity to (and shelling of) Benghazi.   Hard to know how precisely it will work, without far more detailed military knowledge of Libyan capabilities (and damage already done to them). It’s easy to forget, when thinking about how large conventional armies are ill suited to occupation of hostile areas, how efficient the major power militaries are in conventional conflict: Libyan forces are unlikely to be any more successful than Iraqi ones were in 2003.  That said, the direct military efficiency, vis-a-vis the opposition military, does not mean efficiency in avoiding civilian casualties.  The truly awful part of the need for a much broader attack now than would have been needed three weeks ago is that civilian casualties will surely be much more substantial.   These bombings, accurate though they might be in historical terms, still create widespread carnage.

Surely everyone wishes for it all to end as quickly and as peacefully as possible, so that the sufferings of the Libyan people, which seem to have been largely ignored in all the geopolitical machinations, can come to a merciful end.  Alas, it seems that will happen only when Qaddafi is gone: at this point, after all that has been said and done, no compromise is possible with him or with his sons.  The West has now committed itself to regime change.  Given the widespread desertions by high-ranking members of the old Q regime (for example, among diplomats), one might expect in the next week to see some sort of coup d’etat, followed by a ceasefire and negotiations.  Given the situation in Libya, the most likely scenario is the death of the Qaddafis: it’s hard to see them surrendering.

The good part is that the charade of the cease fire has brought so many more countries on board; even Chancellor Merkel is here in Paris today.  One can only wonder if Saudi support for the bombing of Libya comes with the quid pro quo of doing nothing about Bahrain.

An Odd Couple: Libya and Oscar

An Odd Couple: Oscar and Libya

QaddafiEvents in Libya continue to outpace the world community’s response to what is happening.  Yet, like any action film, in our hearts, we already know the final result: Qaddafi will lose power.  What we don’t know is how many people will die in the process.  The drama playing out, however, brings to mind that it’s Oscar month, so it’s time to hand out the awards in some special categories.

Our first category is, Most Ridiculous International Response.  Voters had great difficulty choosing a winner, because there were so many nominees.  Not surprisingly, the vote ended in a tie:  French President Sarkozy and US Senator Kerry, for proposing economic sanctions against Libya.  Voters wanted to know what possible good are sanctions against a man who has just publicly announced that he will burn his country to the ground?

The comedy Oscar for Most Buffoonish Response goes to PM Berlusconi of Italy for his statement that it would be inappropriate to “disturb” his close friend Moammar Qaddafi at this time.  Many voters objected to Berlusconi’s eligibility in this category: they believed a professional buffoon should not be permitted to get an award for acting like a buffoon.

The Oscar for Most Despicable Response had a surprise winner.  Not to be outdone by Berlusconi and the Right, the Left had its own champion step forward, Pres. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.  Ortega denounced the demonstrators and called Qaddafi to express his solidarity in these “moments of tension.”

The Oscar for Most Devious Response goes naturally enough to a wily old tyrant, Fidel Castro, who offered an oblique and vital rhetorical strike on behalf of his old friend: he warned that NATO was about to invade and conquer Libya.  Mr. Castro’s verbal sally, designed to put that intervention in terms odious to many people, and states, around the world, might be the most effective support Qaddafi has thusfar received.

Given the universal hypocrisy of world leaders, voters thought it might be unfair to award a single Oscar for Most Hypocritical Response, until Pres. Ahmadinejad of Iran came out with his hilarious comments about how awful it was that the head of a government would use force against peaceful demonstrators.   He seemed shocked that any legitimate head of government would countenance the shooting of his own people, and stood up forthrightly for the right of all humans to express freely their opinions.  To be fair to the Iranian government, it did follow legal procedures with respect to its own dissidents:  the Iranian Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the execution of two of the presumed leaders of the recent demonstrations.

Voters wanted to offer special awards to Hu Jintao, Ban Ki-Moon, and David Cameron.  Hu Jintao and the Chinese Government get the under-the-radar award for their creative response to potential demonstrations in China: using electronic surveillance, they simply arrested the potential demonstrators at their homes, before they could start any public protest.

Ban Ki-moon and PM Cameron received great sympathy from voters, because, virtually alone among world leaders, they seemed genuinely disturbed at events in Libya and, reading their body language, genuinely frustrated by their inability to convince others to join them in effective action.  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “outrage” at the use of aircraft against civilians: in the diplomatic-speak of the UN, “outrage” is the equivalent of a nuclear response.  He has used the word only once before, for the Israeli air attack on the UNRWA building in Gaza in 2009, that is, precisely for the use of air power against civilians.

PM Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have been the most forceful Western statesmen; Cameron stated, the “vicious repression is appalling,” much sterner terms than those used by any of his NATO peers. One might even suspect that Cameron used Lord Owen to float the idea of a no-fly zone without directly tying it to his government: the contrast between the proposals of Kerry and Owen pretty much sums up the difference between Cameron’s obvious desire to do something useful and Obama’s desire to do nothing.  Cameron’s body language in Egypt suggested that he was biting his tongue about Libya: the sudden parroting of the Obama Administration line about getting a unified international response came as a bitter pill to swallow, to judge from the look on Cameron’s face in front of the cameras in Cairo.

Our final category is Most Feckless Response: the vote was unanimous, Barack Obama.  A British newspaper quoted an unnamed government source there saying of Obama, “he’s spent the last two weeks playing catch-up rather than trying to shape the course of events, which is not what we have come to expect from the leader of the free world.”  Pretty hard to argue with those sentiments.  Given that Sen. Kerry is often a foreign policy stalking horse for the Obama Administration, surely his ridiculous proposal of sanctions had to be cleared with the White House.  The American line that we have to have a “unified international response” sounds good, but given that autocratic governments hold two vetoes in the UN Security Council, and that dozens of governments around the world get their power from the barrel of a gun, calls for unified international action, such as creation of a no-fly zone or use of UN peacekeepers, will get nowhere on the Security Council.  (The SC’s toothless statement today, 2/23, just confirms the obvious.) Autocrats will not like the example of the UN defending a tyrant’s people from his murderous, lunatic rage.  The chances of a unified response that will save Libyan lives are Slim and None.

There remains some hope.  Qaddafi made the critical mistake of threatening to sabotage the oil fields:  killing Libyans does not seem to matter much to any Western leader other than David Cameron, but cutting off oil supplies is a different matter.  The natural gas pipeline from Libya to Italy has already been shut off, so the oil threat is all too real.

Voters felt that Pres. Obama could yet qualify for the Hero Award.  As the “leader of the free world,” he could take three immediate steps:   1) airlift desperately needed medical supplies to affected Libyan cities, like Benghazi; 2) enforce a no-fly zone; 3) send NATO forces to protect NATO nationals in Libya.  Western leaders have rightly shied away from step 2 on its own, because taking step 2 without taking step 3 will lead to an immediate massacre of Italian, French, British, etc. nationals in Libya.  Press reports from Malta suggest that Special Forces units from several European nations are already there, ready to be airlifted to Libya to protect their citizens.  Time to fly, before Slim leaves town.

Hisham Sharabi: prophet of change

Embers and AshesCommentators in the media repeat endlessly the mantra that events in the Arab world are a surprise, that no one could have expected this coordinated assault on the tyrants of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and who knows how many other states.  Yet Arab intellectuals have spoken of this moment for some time.  One of the leading intellectuals of the last generation, the late Palestinian historian, novelist, and social theorist Hisham Sharabi, whose memoirs of the late 1940s, Ashes and Embers, have been read throughout the modern Arab world, accurately foresaw this day.

Sharabi, in his 1988 analysis of the contemporary Arab world, Neopatriarchy, asked:  “Can we change the relation between the state and its citizens from one based on violence to one based on law? Perhaps, but only by legal means and by means based on public consent. … In concrete terms, the most immediate concern right now might be the question of human and political rights. … The new generation, which has known only repression and violence, will find in this objective a truly revolutionary task – if only it can grasp the radical significance of retrieving these rights.”


Ahead of his time as always, my dear friend Hisham wrote those prescient words a generation too early.  This generation, the Liberation Generation I think he would have called them, has taken up his challenge: they have grasped the radical significance of the struggle for human rights.  He recognized, too, that “taking the risk of non-violence and civil disobedience” in resistance to regimes that base their power on violence, rather than on law, is “true heroism,” as Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, and others have shown in the wondrous winter of 2011.  Hisham would surely have delighted to see Revolution made by the Liberation Generation.  Their great challenge now is to transform revolutionary victory over states that rested on violence into institutional systems that enshrine the rule of law and justice.