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April 08, 2011

Public Space and the Libyan Stalemate

In January this year Tunisia's authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for 23 years was ousted in what is now known as the Jasmine revolution. Inspired by the transformation in their regional neighbours, Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo against the rule of Hosni Mubarak, an equally dictatorial regime which exercised authority over an apparently compliant people. In just 18 days, the 30-year rule of Mubarak was at an end, and a new era dawning in Egypt. Inspired by the events of its neighbouring countries, Libyan rebels were emboldened in their desire to oust another dictatorial leader in Muammar Gaddhafi. With a reign exceeding 40 years, there was a belief that the time had come for change. Anti-government rebels launched their offensive in Benghazi, it spread to the capital Tripoli and other cities with some rapidity, feeding the belief that change was imminent. But Gaddhafi did not lie down, launching a vigorous counter-attack. When it appeared that the rebels were about to be over-run, the United Nations stepped in, authorising the imposition of a no-fly zone, which has been enforced by action which appears to exceed that mandate. At best a stale-mate has been reached, and we must ask why it is that such dramatic change in its eastern and western neighbours has failed to be replicated in Libya. What is it that has clogged the pathway to change in Libya which has seemed a highway in Tunisia, Egypt, and this week in Cote d'Ivoire?

One critical difference is the use of public space. In Tunisia and Egypt, the protests brought increasing number of citizens out into the public squares in support of change. Sometimes the consequences were nothing short of brutal and shocking - such as the self-immolation protest in Tunisia. There were at times brutal exchanges in those places, but above all there was a growing unanimity and support amongst the gathered masses that they would accept no other outcome. The use of social media has been highlighted, but its strength was demonstrated only as people were prepared to leave their private spaces and risk themselves in public. It appears that such support has been missing in Libya. There is no doubt that Gaddhafi raised the stakes significantly - clearly demonstrating his intransigence and a preparedness to exact a high toll upon his people, but he appeared to have raised the stakes to a point where many Libyans were not prepared to pay the price of change. The call upon the international community - an entirely understandable request met with a response which was founded on compassion and protection for the vulnerable - only confirmed that those who had started this movement had not counted the cost and foreseen all the possibilities. It no longer became a call for change from within. It was no longer democracy at work so much as the war machine - the power of fear and destruction - which was being employed against Gaddhafi.

And thus we have a stalemate. The moral call for change in Libya emerging from the vox populi has been replaced by the might-is-right voice. The argument cannot be advanced without significant damage to the very people whom the interventionists profess to be fighting for. Whatever the outcome, democracy will not be the winner.

The public space has proven to be the most significant space of all in regime changes around the world in recent decades. No-one can forget the collapse of the Berlin wall, the encounter in Tiananmen Square, the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Each of these events transpired because the people took their stance in the public space and found themselves accompanied by a growing number of their compatriots. Without violence and bloodshed, significant change emerged. We have seen similar impacts in our own nation, looking back to the Moratorium marches against the Vietnam war, the streets clogged with trams, the marches for reconciliation, and the GetUp events against Workchoices. The extent of their impact varies, but each has made their collective mark upon the public psyche, each has brought about a change in the public realm.

In this increasingly privatised age, we are wont to forget the power of the public space. It is more than getting a face in the media, it is an indication of the preparedness of the people to get out of their comfortable spaces and claim the public space again - a space that is too readily left in the hands of celebrities, politicians, and media personnel to take the lead. When large numbers of people take to the streets, we see the true democratic voice being exercised, even more so than at the ballot box come election time.

Of course we would be foolish to believe that every venture into the public space brings about the change we desire. Gaddhafi has demonstrated that there are those who will fight back, sometimes with alarming and disproportionate force. People are killed in such circumstances, but that does not mean the end of their cause. This past week we have commemorated the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Who can forget his "I have a dream" speech, its echo reverberating through time, its passion still stirring today? King - and many who joined him in the public space calling for change - paid the highest price for their efforts. But their call for change lived beyond their deaths, and continues to bring new life and new hope to today's generation.

The fear is that the Libyan stalemate will be prolonged, with escalating costs in terms of human life and human well-being in Libya, and significant funds being diverted into continuing military efforts. It is a quagmire Libya - and the world - can ill-afford. But it should serve as a reminder that privatised solutions are not always the most effective or efficient, even when the alternative cost seems potentially high.

Posted by gary at April 8, 2011 11:10 AM

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