The Algerian hostage crisis and the unfolding situation in Mali are being interpreted in a lot of media commentary as blowback from the winds unleashed by the Arab Spring. The ‘media-sense’ has it that the storm was bound to wreak the havoc of instability in the region after the rocks of stability – read the StrongMan leaders like Gaddafi and Mubarak – were toppled one by one. It is strange that while it was largely the intellectual Left which opposed the intervention in Libya – a neo-liberal oil grab, it was said – it was the neo-con Right which was critical of the United States in not standing by – our man in the Middle-East – Mubarak. Stretch a line long enough, the Indian philosopher Vivekananda once said, and you get a circle. The unbridgeable continuum of Left and Right often stands as a paradoxical proof.
In many ways, the point is valid. When the Leviathan falls from power the Game of Thrones begins. However, the instability is no where near the anarchy the prophets of doom proclaimed. Egypt has a nascent democratic government. Whatever its flaws. Libya doesn’t have Gaddafi. Whatever his, well, qualities. But, what we also have is an Al-Qaeeda that seems to have risen from the ashes and is riding rampant on a storm fuelled by, what is assumed to be, Libyan arms. We have the possibility of renewed international and inter-ethnic conflict, in the Mid-East Crescent and in the North Africa-Sahara region. Both situations are serious and potentially very dangerous for regional and global stability. Neither, however, justifies any bleary eyed nostalgia for the StrongMan who kept the peace.
Firstly, because sooner or later, the StrongMan was bound to go anyway. If not toppled by an opponent then, well, Mubarak and Gaddafi were both old men. There would have been a period of instability then for obvious reasons. Secondly, and more importantly, ‘the march to modernity’ – as Kishore Mahbubani calls it – that Asian societies have been witnessing since the economic miracle of the Asian Tigers, has been moving, decade by decade, if one looks at it, eastwards. The direct consequence of this ‘march to modernity’ is a burgeoning bourgeois middle class. And, especially in our connected age, it is not long before this class begins to assert its rights against anyone in a position of power who seems to be stifling their path to progress, their routes to the future. The anachronistic regimes of Tunisia. Egypt and Libya were, to a large extent, surviving on artificial props. As we saw, they only needed a ‘slight’ push to come tumbling down, this side or that.
After these regimes came crumbling down picking up the pieces was never going to be an easy task. In moments of transition any national society is bound to go through a period of instability. What we are seeing in the region is nothing out of the ordinary. The international community, rather than disparage the positives of the Arab Spring, a genuine upsurge from the people, the international community, especially the great powers, needs to be ready and willing to assist these societies to meet their challenges, through aid, diplomacy and even military assistance, as France is doing in Mali.
In our age, state building is not merely a challenge that each nation must face for itself but is a global responsibility. For the consequences of state collapse, as we know and as the situation in countries like Afghanistan reminds us again and again, are felt far across national borders. And in this let us hope that the spectrum of the Left, Right and Centre can come a full circle.