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What Political Models Might Shape the New Libya, Tunisia?

October 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya News, Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace speak with Gwen Ifill about the next steps for the Arab spring in Libya, Tunisia and Syria.
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GWEN IFILL:  For on the unpredictability of upheaval, we turn to Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri for [the] Middle East* at the Atlantic Council, Marina Ottaway, a Middle East analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News.

Welcome to you all.

Marina Ottaway, we have been talking about transitions of a sort in Syria, in Tunisia, in Libya. How are they alike and how are they different?

MARINA OTTAWAY, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: They’re quite different from each other.

Tunisia is probably going to be the most peaceful of the transitions in the Arab world that we are seeing. It’s a relatively small country. It is a relatively secularized country and fairly accepting of democracy. We have seen — we saw in that short piece that you showed the leader of one of the parties that was — had expected to do quite well in the election conceding the fact that they had lost. He didn’t say, somebody cheated here.

This is really something very, very, very encouraging. Libya, of course, has had a very difficult war. It’s also likely to be a real revolution in Libya, because there is — no matter what happens — and it may not be pretty, what happens — but I think there is going to be a totally new regime there, because Gadhafi was the regime.

And once Gadhafi is removed, it’s bound to be a different political system and a different political elite that comes to the fore.

GWEN IFILL: And, of course, Michele Dunne, in Syria, there’s still a crackdown under way, as far as we can tell. And no transition has occurred as of yet.

Does this do violence to our ideas about what democracy is?

MICHELE DUNNE, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council: Well, I mean, Syria is seeing a very protracted uprising and one that’s being put down with a great deal of force.

As we have seen these successive uprisings in the Arab world, the regimes in power have responded with more and more force, seeing what happened in the other countries. The other thing I think that’s really critical in differentiating one situation from another is the role that the militaries have played.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, the militaries decided to side with the protesters and to abandon the regime very early on. And that led to quick uprisings and a relatively low number of casualties. That’s not the case in Syria. In Libya, we saw the military splinter.

In Yemen, we’re seeing that. And these situations in which the military splinters or, in Syria, when it largely sticks with the regime, although we’re seeing some splintering on the edges, that leads to much more violence and a much longer, bloodier process.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham, let’s talk about Libya, because, at first, there was a great huzzah that Gadhafi was gone. And now it just seems so untidy and unsavory. Where does Libya goes post-Gadhafi?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya Television: Libya will probably have the most difficult time going through the transition.

In Libya, you have to start from the bottom up. There is nothing left there. Gadhafi’s regime pulverized Libya physically and politically and culturally, in any way. When they were talking about trying Gadhafi in Libya, they couldn’t have done that in five years. They don’t even have a judicial information. There is no functioning bureaucracy.  There is no functioning civil society the way we know it.

There are no political parties. There are no parliamentary traditions. And, in Libya, also, it is not as homogeneous as Tunisia, for instance. Libya was cobbled up together by three main regions, Cyrenaica in east, Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south.

And the only thing we know about Libyan nationalism was forged during the struggle against the Italian colonialism between the two World Wars. And so now it’s splintered. We have ideological differences. We have the Islamists are trying to assert themselves against the old Sufis in Libya.

And then you have regional differences. And yesterday Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the new leader, was talking about not the priorities that I would like to see or many people would like to see. His priorities were polygamy, restoring polygamy, talking about Islamic banking and the primacy of Sharia in jurisprudence, instead of talking about demobilizing the militias, writing a constitution, and preparing for elections.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that. To what degree — in Tunisia even though it is a different definition when they talk about — it seems like when they talk about Islamic law, to what degree is this return or this affection or this promise to bring back Islamic law going to create a different next chapter for these kinds of nations that maybe the United States didn’t anticipate?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to keep in mind that there is no Arab Constitution that doesn’t talk about Islam and doesn’t talk about the Sharia.

The constitution of Egypt, the one that was put in place in 1971 by a man who was supposedly an ally of the United States, declares that Egypt — Islam is the religion of the state and that Sharia is the source of legislation. So the question is not whether the constitution mentions Sharia or whether it talks about Islam and so on.

The real issue is what are the kinds of institutions that are set up and also how Sharia is interpreted. Sharia is not a law. It’s 13 centuries of interpretations of — you know, of the religion, so that Sharia can mean everything and nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Well, exactly. And in Tunisia, the party which seems to have — it’s claiming victory tonight — seems to interpret it in a far more moderate way than what we heard talked about yesterday.

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes. That’s absolutely the case.

I think in all of these countries, whether we’re looking at Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the critical issue is going to be whether Islamists and non-Islamists can get together and work out a set of rules, new constitutions and laws that protect all the citizens involved and allow for free political competition without overturning the system.

GWEN IFILL: Now, let me just interrupt to ask you this. If you can’t figure out how to bury your deposed leader after several days, how do you know that you’re going to be able to come to this more complicated, almost quasi-judicial accommodation?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, the Libyan National Transition Council does actually have a road map going forward. They’re supposed to — they have the deadline for forming a government within a few weeks and they have a timetable set out for elections.

Now, whether they will be able to abide by all of this, we will have to see, but there are plans. It’s not a completely chaotic environment.

HISHAM MELHEM: The issue not whether Islam is the religion of the state. Most of them have that.

And the issue is whether also the Sharia is one source in jurisprudence or the main source. That’s what troubles me. And I don’t like that because you cannot have equality of genders if Sharia is interpreted the way many people in the Arab world and many Islamists interpret it.

So the fear is well-founded. Every experience that we have had in the region with the Islamists is that they like to monopolize political power. Now, when you talk about Ennahda, this is a group that went underground. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned for the first time after 20 years of exile. They were brutalized by the Ben Ali regime, like most Islamists in the Arab world. And that’s why they are the only functioning effective political group if you want to call them that way, because the mosque had certain sanctity, while other groups were better six feet under ground or in exile.

The problem is everybody says we are a moderate. And everybody now has fell in love with Turkey because Turkey has become the model for them. Look at the Turks. They are moderate but they are Islamists. Turkey has a long secularist tradition, just as Tunisia. And I’m afraid that the secular tradition in Tunisia could be undermined, the way it is possible for the secularist tradition in Turkey to be undermined too.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about Syria, because this is the one that is not really like the other two. And we have the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador.

Does that portend poorly for what is about to happen, especially of the U.S. relations in the region?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Well, certainly, the United States finds itself in a very difficult situation after these uprisings.

I think the United States doesn’t have the kind of longstanding allies that it had before. The United States doesn’t know who is going to be in power in Egypt. It still has relations with the military. But it certainly cannot count on another Mubarak, essentially. Maybe it will happen, but it certainly cannot count on that.

GWEN IFILL: When you say another Mubarak, you mean another friendly ally?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Another friendly ally that is not only another friendly ally, but a friendly ally who is there for a very long period of time, you know, without creating real problems for the United States.

So there is no doubt that this is a period of uncertainty for U.S. policy in the region. And it’s a period of uncertainty for all these countries. But I think it’s important to keep in mind the United States has been talking about democracy and wanting democracy in these countries.

Democracy also always is brought about through a messy period of transition. There has never been a country that became democratic without going through a very difficult period.

GWEN IFILL: So, does the U.S., Michele Dunne, draw back and allow them to figure out what democracy means on their own or does the U.S. have to stay intimately involved in all of those transitions?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, U.S. relations with these countries differ.

The U.S. is much closer, for example, has had a much closer relationship with Egypt than with Tunisia and so forth. It has more influence in some places than others. But I agree with Marina that, you know, the process of moving from authoritarianism to democracy is a long process. It’s a messy process. And the U.S. is going to do what it can to promote the growth of institutions in these countries.

And it’s going to have to take a little bit of a deep breath sometimes when elections are held or when certain parties, especially during elections, say things that the United States is uncomfortable with.

GWEN IFILL: Deep breath?

HISHAM MELHEM: There are many disturbing signs that we have seen in Egypt. Today, the president of the United States called Field Marshal Tantawi, 75-year-old appointed by Mubarak, who is the head of the so-called, SCAF, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and urged him to get rid of the emergency law.

What you see in Egypt today, harassing the media, harassing secularists and other groups, stoking the fires of sectarians against the Coptic minority, as we have seen recently, when the Egyptian television called on the so-called honorable Egyptians, which is a code word for the Salafists to go to the streets and beat up on the Christian Copts, these are what we have seen in Egypt today.

So I’m reminded sometimes of that WHO old song  ”We won’t get fooled again.” “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

HISHAM MELHEM: And we should have every reason to be concerned that our ally in Egypt, which receives a great deal of funding and support from the United States, may go in a different direction. I’m hoping that Tunisia probably will be the only one that will chart a course towards a democratic future.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham Melhem, Al-Arabiya News, Michele Dunne for the Atlantic Council, Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Foundation, thank you all very much.