Soft bigotry and Qadafi

Issandr el-Amrani on why ‘lowered expectations’ of democracy in the Arab world have been turned on their head. (And why Qadafi jokes are wearing thin.)

For several decades, there has been a soft bigotry of lowered expectations in the west and among Arab elites about the Arab world. The prevalent thinking about this region of over 300 million souls is that it offered no fertile ground for democracy, either because democracy risked bringing political forces hostile to western interests or because democracy is not a value that has much currency in the region. Many regimes understood this, and played a double game of decrying their societies’ “immaturity” while encouraging anti-democratic tendencies such as populism and, at times, a reactionary social conservatism. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, no one will buy this any more – and nor should they about two more north African countries: Libya and Morocco.

Over the last few days, Muammar Gaddafi has waged a vicious battle over his compatriots, hiring foreign mercenaries to take out protesters. Gaddafi, in power since 1969, is best known in the west for his eccentricity, from the voluptuous nurse that accompanies him everywhere to his habit of setting up a bedouin tent during state visits abroad. The focus on such personal foibles, as well as Libya’s alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing, has dominated the portrayal of the country. For most people around the world, Libya was Gaddafi.

It turns out there are another 6 million Libyans, many of whom are now rebelling against the Gaddafi family, and that at least 200 have died in the last few days fighting for their freedom. Libya is the Arab world’s North Korea, a near-totalitarian nightmare and an insult to common decency. And as Pyongyang is protected by China, so Tripoli is being given cover by Tony Blair, BP and academics-turned-consultants like Anthony Giddens and Benjamin Barber. The idea is that it was best to try to help countries like Libya “reform”, even if the reforms in question tended to be mostly about making the place more business-friendly.’

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