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A second ‘Arab Awakening’

Six months after a rev­o­lu­tion broke out in Libya, rebels have pushed into the cap­ital city of Tripoli and appear to have Moammar Gad­hafi — the country’s leader for the last 42 years — on the run. We asked Denis Sul­livan — pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and director of Northeastern’s inter­na­tional affairs pro­gram and the Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment — to explain how the ongoing con­flict will affect the future sta­bility of the region. 

What would be the significance of Gadhafi’s capture?

The Libyan people have achieved a great vic­tory in Gadhafi’s over­throw. It is now very impor­tant for Gad­hafi to be brought to jus­tice, inside Libya first and fore­most and then in the Hague. It would be a crit­ical event so that the people of Libya can move on to the next stage of their his­tory and future devel­op­ment. We’ve heard many reports of tragedies and hor­rors that Gad­hafi has per­pe­trated, including pris­oners being released and the dis­covery of mass graves.

Men like Gad­hafi, along with Bashar al-​​Assad of Syria, are a legit­i­mate focus of people’s anger and sense of injus­tice. This is not only true for the Libyan (or the Syrian) people; it is also true for many people around the world who have also been affected by these dic­ta­tors or their pre­de­ces­sors. Those who lost loved ones in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 come to mind. For them too, Gadhafi’s cap­ture would be par­tic­u­larly impor­tant for their sense of justice.

What will ultimately be the lasting impression of this revolution in Libya?

This semester, I’ll be teaching an open class­room enti­tled “America, Islam, and the Middle East” in which stu­dents will be addressing this very issue. From a U.S. stand­point, we have to learn from the rebel­lions and rev­o­lu­tions in the Arab world and develop a new Amer­ican strategy with both Arab and Muslim societies.

For Libya itself, the people must first sta­bi­lize their economy and gov­ern­ment, and find some sense of social and polit­ical jus­tice for the vic­tims of crimes com­mitted by Gadhafi’s regime. I hope they are moving toward a demo­c­ratic system, but they first must move toward a more humane and just system. Having said that, it will be a very long tran­si­tion ahead for the Libyans.

The next shoe to drop is Syria. Its leader, Bashar al-​​Assad, will be watching the Libya sit­u­a­tion very closely. I think we’re now watching the second “Arab Awak­ening,” the first of which occurred more than 100 years ago with the devel­op­ment of pro­gres­sive ideas and thinking and a col­lec­tive sense of Arabs as a proud people.

Many ques­tions, how­ever, remain about this second “Awak­ening.” For one, how will the con­flict between the Pales­tinians and Israelis play out? I think there are many shoes yet to drop from other Arab soci­eties, though the world cannot turn its atten­tion away from Libya. It’s a dan­gerous place, and can threaten its neigh­bors if the country doesn’t stabilize.

How will the United States’ involvement in the conflict be viewed?

This is still evolving, but we seem to have rel­a­tively “high marks” for our role. Pres­i­dent Obama, as a con­sensus builder within the Western alliance, has sup­ported the rebel­lion and called for Gadhafi’s over­throw, though some think that Obama is “leading from behind.” Still, NATO has gone far beyond what the United Nations had sanc­tioned, and there’s been little inter­na­tional out­rage because Gadhafi’s demise has been seen as a neces­sity. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion can and should take some credit for how it has man­aged this situation.

– by Greg St. Martin

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