By Henry Porter for The Guardian
Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi dead; Hosni Mubarak and family behind bars with millions of dollars of assets frozen; President Ben Ali of Tunisia sentenced to 35 years in absentia; the Bosnian war criminal Ratko Mladic awaiting trial in the Hague. We can take a moment to recognise that sometimes things go astonishingly well – the removal of these five characters from the picture is a blessing.
Whatever doubts we have about Gaddafi’s death and the absence of due process (if you can’t 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 President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is torturing young demonstrators to death, and President Saleh of Yemen 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 Gaddafi 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 I would say that now, even if it had not gone so well for the rebels in the last 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 General Mladic separated the men from the women and young children and went on to murder 8,000 people. Benghazi, the eastern city where Gaddafi 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 wasn’t optimistic – Libya seemed too vast, Gaddafi too cunning and the rebel forces hopelessly amateur. And there were doubts whether air power alone could achieve the result that it did. But after 26,000 air sorties and 9,600 strike missions, and a lot of blood spilled, the regime is no more and David Cameron and 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 46.4bn barrels, which have nothing to do with morality or Srebrenica.
Stage two of the Arab Spring begins today with elections in Tunisia for the Constituent Assembly, in which the Islamist party An-Nahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, is 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 28 November, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-organised 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%. 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 organised 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% 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% 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 chaps 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’s a given – not something they want to go on about.
If the west wants permanent change in North Africa, we have to recognise the potential of this new generation and find ways of providing stimulus and investment, even as we struggle to create jobs for our own young people. That is the only intervention open to us now and in some ways it is much more demanding.
In Libya, the guns need to be put away, a national army and police force set up and proper courts founded. The first test of the new civil society must be to give a scrupulously honest account of how the former dictator met his end. The new republic will not be served by a cover-up and by spokesmen for the National Transitional Council lying through their boots. As the graffiti that appeared in Tripoli this weekend reads: “Clean it up and keep it clean”.