[Viewpoint] Gwangju to Cairo to Tripoli

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[Viewpoint] Gwangju to Cairo to Tripoli

It was unsettling as I arrived ten years ago at Cairo airport, which was guarded by armed soldiers. The armored vehicles lining the streets of the Egyptian capital destroyed my excitement to see the cradle of ancient civilization.

Gemma Chandri, the organizer of the seminar I was attending, was a former labor activist with a special interest in Korea. An industrial city not far from Cairo shocked me. It was no different from a refugee camp. Stray dogs were digging into trash cans and the workers dressed in rags seemed oppressed. They reflected the harsh reality of Egypt.

On my flight back to Seoul, I was reminded of the industrial situation in the 1970s in Korea. Chandri wrote in an e-mail, “Just as stars are shining over the Nile River every night, our march for freedom will never stop.”

The painful yet unforgettable memories of the Gwangju uprising in May 1980 still haunt Koreans, and the outcries from Africa have special resonance to us. Will the waves of democratization successfully overturn oppressive rule from Yemen to Senegal and Ivory Coast?

Feb. 11 was the Friday of Departure. President Hosni Mubarak resigned after three decades of iron rule and Egyptians succeeded in ending the dictatorship. The Libyans are still waging a fight against Muammar el-Qaddafi. The storm of democratization has resulted in thousands of victims and is moving westward. The storm is expected to change the political map of the region, but no one knows when they can enter the zone of freedom they have long yearned for.

Having experienced the Gwangju democratization movement, Koreans are watching the revolutions with anxiety. The end of dictatorship only means the beginning of the long and hard journey to attain democratization. The Tahrir Square may have the air of freedom, and Qaddafi might be toppled eventually. However, democracy will not come right away. After more than 500 fighters for democracy were sacrificed, Korea had to spend more than 10 years of struggle to finally see democracy bloom.

American political scientist Samuel Huntington made a rather ominous prediction in his book, “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century.” He believed the chances of countries with Confucian and Islamic cultures attaining Western liberal democracy was very small. He wrote that Confucian democracy and Islamic democracy was an oxymoron. Korea nevertheless proved that his harsh prediction was wrong; One of the most faithfully Confucian countries in the world has set an example for successful democratization.

However, despite the outcry of Chandri, Huntington may have a point when it comes to the likelihood of democracy in the Arab world. Huntington was certainly biased in considering Islam as more hostile than other religions and Arab countries to be surrounded by a “bloody border.” Yet, his diagnosis - that more blood and sacrifice are expected for democracy to take a root in the Islamic world - appears convincing.

Simply put, there is no alternative to military and bureaucratic systems taking over the new order in the Arab world. And political factions there are engaging in power struggles. In a country with a per-capita income of $2,000, a strong military, a struggling economy and factionalism, both the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and mildly Westernized politicians are negotiating over the ways to convert the country to democracy, while the hardline military is watching closely in Cairo’s power vacuum. No one knows who will snatch power.

The situation is even worse in Libya. The per-capita national income is much higher, at $12,000, but national wealth is mostly concentrated on the Qaddafi family and their supporters, so the living standard of average citizens is not much different from the Egyptians. Even if Qaddafi is removed from power, there are far more complex elements to hinder democratization. Three major tribes are expected to clash over petroleum facilities.

In addition to regular warfare, civil war among the mercenaries, such as the Libyan Revolutionary Command Guards and the Khamees’ battalion, is likely to continue. In major cities where intense battles have ended, autonomous civilian committees are working hard to restore peace and order.

The situation and future course of Libya depends on which tribe or faction takes over the capital city of Tripoli.

The Bedouins are accustomed to the unity of politics and religion in the name of Allah, and there are more than a few obstacles for them to accept the separation of politics and religion and the art of negotiation among tribes.

In the Arab world, tribes and families in power are generally overthrown by coup d’etat. From 1949 to 1980, there had been 55 military coups that resulted in changing the reigning families.

We certainly welcome the people-oriented democratization movement in Cairo and Tripoli, but we need to also be wary of the possibility of another coup. Just as Gwangju eventually triumphed, we all hope to see democracy shine over the Islamic world. I wish to hear hopeful news from Chandri in Cairo.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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