[Viewpoint] Will winds of revolt sweep North?

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[Viewpoint] Will winds of revolt sweep North?

On the historic evening when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, I had been among a crowd of Tunisians in Tunis. Thousands had swarmed into the grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba upon hearing the news from Egypt. Their faces beamed with pride, having first inflamed the revolutionary fervor that toppled a 23-year autocratic ruler, triggering a similar outcome in Egypt.

The obvious question that came into everyone’s heads was “Where next?” I posed that question to a range of experts: university professors, journalists and activists. Yemen, Jordan and Algeria were some of the answers.

None named Libya. Libya was under the tight ship of one of the modern era’s longest-serving and most oppressive leaders.

Libya, the fourth-largest country in Africa, has a small population of 6.7 million. The people have been under draconian rule for decades, deprived of political freedom and civil rights. A constitution, parliament and political parties exist in name only. Rebellions are also difficult to organize in a society controlled by various tribes.

Even a peaceful rally can trigger a heavy-handed response from police loyal to the ruler. The public, in exchange for supposed free will, are compensated with the economic benefits from rich natural resources and oil. Libya therefore appeared to be saved from the democracy fever sweeping the autocratic communities in Africa and the Middle East.

Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, however, is being pushed to the edge. Antigovernment protests that sprouted in the Mediterranean port city of Benghazi have reached the capital of Tripoli. Qaddafi is fighting back, though. Benghazi, besieged by protesters, has been under ruthless attack from military warplanes and tanks. Bodies are reportedly littered on the streets from the violent military response, raising fears of a civil war.

Amid rumors of that he would flee, Qaddafi appeared on state television to deny he was in hiding. Despite the bloody fights, protesters remain defiant. With outrage at home and abroad about the massacre against his own people, some of the militia, tribes and senior government officials are turning away from Qaddafi.

A veteran Israeli journalist I met in Tel Aviv said he, like many other Western experts, had been blind to the potential of change in the Middle East. “We had never expected the Mubarak regime to come down,” he said. He had been to Egypt more than 200 times, but had been oblivious to the fact that it could occur. He had failed to predict that the brewing public anger in Tunisia and Egypt could be explosive enough to topple their leaders - and in such a tech-savvy and nonviolent way - seemingly unhindered by the stereotype that Islam does not fit into the democratic equation.

The first lesson he has learned from events in North Africa is that the press must avoid the trap of jumping to conclusions. Two weeks in the region has taught me the limitations of conventional wisdom. I, too, had been among the ignorant outsiders who did not believe that Mubarak would relinquish power so fast.

Journalists had not been alone behind the curve. The French ambassador in Tunisia wired a report to Paris shortly before the Tunisian dictator fled saying that the Ben Ali regime would not likely collapse. The envoy, not surprisingly, was sacked. Even Mossad of Israel and the CIA of the United States did not see the wave of democracy arriving on the shores of Africa and the Middle East.

Qaddafi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il were born in the same year, 1942. When compared to a corporation, Qaddafi is the founder of the dynasty and Kim is running the family business. Qaddafi took power in 1969 in a coup. Kim inherited power in 1994 at the age of 54 when his father died. In autocracy, Qaddafi is far more seasoned. During his 42 years in power, Qaddafi has experimented with many ideologies in the history textbook - socialism, Islamic fundamentalism and a self-created democracy with a blend of Arab nationalism.

Qaddafi was blamed for a host of terrorist attacks, exacting retaliatory attacks from the United States and United Nations sanctions as well as the notorious nickname “mad dog” from President Ronald Reagan for protecting Libyan suspects who planted a bomb on the Pan Am flight that blew up in 1988. He compensated flight victims in 2003 and relinquished weapons to mend ties with Western nations.

North Korea shares the rank with Libya and Myanmar as the world’s worst repressive governments. The dictator in Pyongyang may well be having sleepless nights these days. Some could say the country is different - unwired and isolated from the world. But the iron rule is crumbling in Libya. When the time comes for Qaddafi to kneel down, it may well be the “Sputnik moment,” or wake-up call, for Kim Jong-il.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Bae Myung-bok
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