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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
You’ve Ousted An Arab Autocrat. Now What?
By Claire Spencer
The world may or may not be closer this week to finding an exit strategy for Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi. One of the more taxing questions, however, is whether he will then escape both local and international justice as a result of the deal that is struck.
France’s controversial proposal last week was for Colonel Gaddafi to stay in Libya, provided he also stays out of politics. Few Libyans are convinced. The Transitional National Council, recently acknowledged by 32 states to be the legitimate governing authority in Libya, is said to be split over any discussion of impunity.
Yet there is a larger issue at stake. Ridding north Africa and the Middle East of authoritarian leaders is just the beginning of a longer process. Indeed, how to redress abuses of the past, and remove the old corrupt elites from power, is a conundrum exercising minds in the tense pre-election period in both Tunisia and Egypt. As the Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani put it, writing before the recent return of protesters to Tahrir Square and last weekend’s violence, transitional justice seems to consist of prosecuting a very few, while leaving most of the “older apparatchiks” alone.
The challenge goes beyond identifying and judging the most corrupt of the previous regime’s entourage, where many of the large fish have now been netted. Instead, it is about whether the old regime is really giving way to the new. Cleaning out the stables of the former regime parties is a murkier business. It will be the difference between a revolution that succeeds in entrenching real freedoms and one that is just a limited, elite-level coup d’état. The same issues will haunt a transition in Libya.
In Tunisia, the committee charged with preserving revolutionary gains sought to ban from public office all those holding membership of the ruling party of former president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. Yet, a compromise against those most active in the last, most abusive, decade of Mr Ben Ali’s rule has not prevented new parties setting up under erstwhile regime luminaries. Many have already been cleared of corruption charges, while sceptics of swiftly dispensed justice speak darkly of puppet-masters continuing to defend vested interests behind the scenes.
Egypt’s formerly ruling National Democratic party was officially dissolved by the courts in April, but until recent protests forced their dissolution, many local councils still operated as NDP fiefdoms. Even with its senior officials under arrest, the spectre of an NDP resurgence was sufficient to bring old opposition parties and the new Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice party together in mid-June to form a national coalition.
The problem is that individual arrests and bans do not undo a whole structure of interests that reach far into the state. These countries were ruled by nepotism and corruption, with business and politics intricately entwined in ways that cannot be unravelled overnight. How far retrospective justice should reach into the system is also overshadowed by recent regional experience. Many are well aware of the violence that followed the de-Baathification process in Iraq, and argue for restraint accordingly. About 2m out of 10m Tunisians were (at least nominally) members of the ruling party. It is also true that a functioning public administration and private sector are now more critical to Tunisia’s future than retroactive witch-hunts.
Waiting in the wings, however, is a younger and less tainted generation still excluded from administrations where, in Egypt and Tunisia, senior posts have barely changed hands since the uprisings of early 2011. Many former card-bearing cadres of state-owned or parastatal companies in Egypt and Tunisia also remain in place. Investigations into the individual and collective actions of the internal security forces are also in their infancy, raising questions about where and to whom impunity should apply when the families of victims can identify, and often name, the perpetrators. With no national consensus on these issues in sight in Egypt or Tunisia, many fear that the erstwhile bastions of privilege will collude to cover their tracks.
The unsystematic muddling through that currently characterises the redress of past abuses in Egypt and Tunisia needs to receive more attention from the outside world. There are models of transitional justice that new generations could draw on, from South Africa to Chile, and even Morocco, to demand that their interim authorities strike an appropriate balance between justice and social peace. Equally, if Libya is to thrive post-Gaddafi, then what happens in Egypt and Tunisia will influence the credibility of moves towards change. Former presidents in waiting elsewhere in the Middle East, above all Syria, will also be watching to see how quickly former regimes reinvent themselves.
-This opinion was published in The Financial Times on 27/07/2011
-The writer is head of the Middle East & North Africa programme at Chatham House in London