Osama bin Laden and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi dead; former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and family behind bars with millions of dollars of assets frozen; former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sentenced to 35 years in absentia; the Bosnian war criminal Ratko Mladic awaiting trial in The Hague. We can take a moment to recognize that sometimes things go astonishingly well — the removal of these five characters from the picture is a blessing.
Whatever doubts we have about Qaddafi’s death and the absence of due process (if you cannot even decide where to bury a man, it is a good rule not to kill him), his death is a bracing lesson for the likes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is torturing young demonstrators to death, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and King Hamad of Bahrain, both of whom are drenched in the blood of their countrymen.
The knowledge that just 12 months ago Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi all looked untouchable must cause the goofy-looking butcher of Damascus and his fragrant missus to clutch at each other in the wee small hours.
The NATO intervention was right and would be even if it had not gone so well for the rebels in the past three months. At the time the decision was taken, I was in Tunisia, in the stunned aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure, looking up the timeline of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when Mladic separated the men from the women and young children and went on to murder 8,000 people. Benghazi, the eastern city where Qaddafi did his military training, was as vulnerable as the Bosniak enclave. His mercenaries would have created a bloodbath if they had not been driven from the outskirts as the first air strikes began.
I was not optimistic — Libya seemed too vast, Qaddafi too cunning and the rebel forces hopelessly amateur. And there were doubts whether air power alone could achieve the result that it did. However, after 26,000 air sorties and 9,600 strike missions, and a lot of blood spilled, the regime is no more and British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy can quietly take a bow. Both are nimble politicians, yet it is not unduly naive to believe they were influenced by the memory of what happened in Bosnia.
There is always a basic moral requirement to intervene, but any decision to act must gauge risk and the likelihood of achieving success. The seemingly pragmatic considerations also contain a moral element, because the interventionist obviously has an obligation not to inflame local opinion or create a situation worse than the one he is seeking to alleviate. These conditions were met in Libya, yet there was the additional incentive of the country’s “sweet, light” crude and the reserves of 46.4 billion barrels, which have nothing to do with morality or Srebrenica.
Stage two of the Arab Spring began on Sunday with elections in Tunisia for the Constituent Assembly, in which the Islamist party An-Nahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, are likely to do well. This is the first big test for the West because we have to allow the people who risked everything on the streets to develop their own politics and democratic processes.
Nor should we allow ourselves to be spooked by what happens in the Egyptian elections on Nov. 28, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-organized political wing, the Freedom and Justice party, is expected to trounce nascent secular parties.
Admittedly, this will not be the greatest outcome. Quite apart from the Islamists’ failure to reconcile their declared support for rights and civil liberties with the deeper convictions of religious authoritarianism, the generation of devout men likely to take power is hardly equipped to address, or properly understand, the problems of the young people who took to the streets Tunis and Cairo.
The thing that so few have really absorbed about the revolutions is that they were generational — the young rising against the tyranny and corruption, but also the incompetence of their parents’ generation. The first demonstrations in the Arab Spring occurred in the Tunisian provincial city of Sidi Bouzid, where a young man set himself on fire because officials confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. Like so many of his contemporaries, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, could not find proper work.
Youth unemployment and the grinding lack of hope are the source of the most serious social and political problems across the Arab world. The unemployment rate among Tunisians under 25 is about 26 percent. Half of the 60,000 graduates released on to the jobs market every year will not find work. These are the well-educated and highly organized single young people who had nothing to lose during the uprising and have gained very little in material terms since.
To grasp what happened in Tahrir Square, you must know that 54 million of Egypt’s population of 82 million are under 30 years old and this age group makes up 90 percent of the country’s unemployed. The very highest rates of joblessness are among the well educated.
The UK’s median age is 40. Across the Arab world, it hovers in the mid-20s. In Egypt, it is 24.3, Libya 24.5, Tunisia 30 and Syria 21.9. Factor in regular unemployment rates in the Middle East of 25 percent among the young — even in the rich Gulf states — and you know that we are only at the beginning of this particular story.
The sophistication of this new generation of Arabs should not be underestimated. They require far more than sermons about prayer and clean living from middle-aged men to make lives for themselves in the 21st century. They will need freedom, empathy and technocratic as well as political leadership to create the jobs that will ensure stability and peace.
When you talk to these educated young adults, as I did earlier this year in Tunis and Cairo, it is striking how well they appreciate that democratic change depends on job creation.
Yes, they declare their faith, but it is a given — not something they want to go on about. Incidentally, their grasp of the failings of their parents’ generation, their ideas about how things might be changed and their eloquence seemed light years ahead of the of the people demonstrating outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In Libya, the guns need now to be put away, a national army and police force set up and proper courts established, if there is to be any hope of civil society. However, if the West really wants permanent change in North Africa, we have to find ways of investing and providing stimulus, even as we struggle to create jobs for our own young people. That is the only intervention open to us now.
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