Surviving Human Nature

Some Topics

  • Arab Revolts & Failing States

    A responsibility to protect resolution was passed by the Security Council in 2011, authorizing military intervention to protect civilians in Libya. This resolution led to NATO nations joining together to bomb Libya over many weeks, shifting their resolve from protecting peaceful demonstrators (who became armed rebels) to removing the dictator and his supporters from power. Even when a final outcome is uncertain, it is obvious that responsibility to protect is an idealist's notion with no possibility of practical application. Libya was just one Arab country among many to erupt in civilian protests with peaceful demonstrations leading to property destruction and wanton killing. Beginning in Tunisia, citizens' street protests became a revolutionary passion that spread to adjacent Arab countries. The Arab uprisings had implications for the rest of the world.

    Idealists who promoted democracy and freedom were quick to support popular uprisings that demanded reforms or removal of dictators. This distant idealism paints a pretty picture of the benefits of democracy and recommends elections as the ultimate goal of reform. The reality, of course, is very different. Democratic states are in decline everywhere and their citizens, protesting in the streets, are subject to paramilitary police suppression. The transition from autocratic states with corrupt institutions to fully functional states whose institutions serve the best interests of the people would take, even the best case, centuries to achieve. The basic dynamic of street protest is that citizens with diverse needs and interests will unite in opposition to a common enemy. While the brief interlude of apparent consensus is impressive, cohesion vanishes as soon as the common enemy is defeated.

    An Economist Intelligence Unit report summarized the emerging revolutions in Arab states: 'The recent momentous events have been extraordinary in several respects. The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were sudden and unexpected, occurring in seemingly infertile territory. The revolts were home-grown affairs led by secular forces. They have overturned a host of stereotypes about the Middle East and North Africa region and have caught the outside world unawares. In Egypt, the head of a regime with one of the biggest repressive apparatuses in the world was toppled within a few weeks. Authoritarian regimes elsewhere share similar characteristics: human rights abuses and absence of basic freedoms; rampant corruption and nepotism; the presence of small elites that control the bulk of a nation's assets; and poor governance and social provision. Economic hardships in the form of stagnant or falling incomes, high unemployment and rising inflation have affected many countries. Some authoritarian regimes have young and restless populations. Long-serving geriatric leaders are another common feature. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak had been in office for 29 years; the former Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was in power for 23 years. Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen since 1978 while Libya's Muammar Qadhafi has been in power for more than four decades. The longer ageing autocrats hang on to power, the more out-of-touch and corrupt their regimes tend to become, and the more of an anachronism and an affront they become to their peoples."

    In his description of protests turned armed rebellion in Libya, Solomon Stated: "A post-Qaddafi Libya could easily be roiled in internal battles, ultimately dividing into several smaller countries, each dominated by local tribes. That could make life better for some Libyans, and it could make life worse for others; it would almost surely be problematic for Western companies with oil interests in the country. Modern Libya is an artificial construct, a remnant of colonialism. The glue holding it together is failing, and the warnings of chaos are real. The choice between chaos and oppression is always a tricky one, but this population is tired of oppression and corruption, and chaos may look more attractive to them."

    In Egypt, Mubarack was deposed, but street protests continued, hoping to persuade military leaders to proceed with democratic reforms. The apparent cohesion of the crowds lasted only a few weeks and then violent clashes resumed between Christians and Muslims. Shadid and Kirkpatrick wrote: "But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. In an arc of revolts and revolution, that idea of a broader citizenship is being tested as the enforced silence of repression gives way to the cacophony of diversity. Security and stability were the justification that strongmen in the Arab world offered for repression, often with the sanction of the United States. But even activists admit that the region so far has no model that enshrines diversity and tolerance without breaking down along more divisive identities. In Tunisia, a relatively homogenous country with a well-educated population, fault lines have emerged between the secular-minded coasts and the more religious and traditional inland."

    If civilians in any country needed protection, it was in Syria, but no help was forthcoming. A New York Times editorial summarized the deplorable conduct of a failing dictatorial government: "As many as 1,600 courageous Syrians have been slaughtered since pro-democracy demonstrations began in March (2011). On Wednesday, after three days of shelling, President Bashar al-Assad ordered his military to storm Hama, the city where his father killed up to 20,000 people three decades ago. Where has the international community been? Shamefully paralyzed. The United Nations Security Council finally issued a statement condemning “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities” — but with no threat of sanctions. For two months, Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa had blocked any action at all. It is going to take a lot more pressure to persuade Mr. Assad that his time is up — or to persuade those enabling him to switch sides."

    Early in this chapter (On Law), I discussed the irregular if not random distribution of ethical conduct. If ideal justice involves the fair and impartial measurement of human behavior and more or less equal treatment for all citizens, then ideal justice is impossible. The eruptions in Northern African and the Middle East were not signs of progress towards civil societies and justice for all. They were recurrences of inevitable social chaos that arises from increasing populations, different ideologies. different religious affiliations and decreasing resources to sustain those populations.

    There are many mechanisms that cause inequitable distribution of resources. The combination of wealthy, armed dictators, expanding numbers of poor and defenseless citizens, with the overwhelming adverse forces of nature creates death and destruction on a grand scale that has no obvious solution. With diminishing resources worldwide, the prospect of wealthier countries, rescuing failed states seems less and less likely. In Somalia, Ethopia, and Kenya today a prolonged drought is producing a famine crisis with 11 million humans at risk. Somalia has been a failed state for decades. No input of emergency food aid will solve such a profoundly systemic crisis.

    Events so far in the 21st century point away from all idealist visions toward the harsh realities of human conflicts and suffering that have prevailed as long as humans have walked the earth.

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