Sunday, February 27, 2011

Greasy Rats and Frisky Frogs

From the diary of a former ruler:
Then, as though I was not doing and had not always done everything possible to keep my fellow-citizens well fed (building the harbor, for instance, in the face of general discouragement, and organizing the general supply of fresh vegetables), I suddenly found myself regarded as a public enemy. I was accused of purposely starving the City. The crowd groaned and howled at me almost whenever I showed myself in public, and once or twice pelted me with stones and mud and mouldy crusts. On one occasion I narrowly escaped serious injury in the Market place: my yeoman were set upon by a mob of two or three hundred persons and had their rods of office broken over their own backs. I only just managed to get safely into the Palace by a postern gate not far off, from which a small party of armed Guardsmen dashed out to my rescue. In the old days I would have taken this greatly to heart. Now I just smiled to myself. “Frogs,” I thought, “you are getting very frisky.”

From investigative reports and eyewitness accounts:
Following their prayers for the souls of thire fallen martyrs, the crowds came out of the mosques and converged upon the center of the city. They pointed their fingers to the sky and chanted: “God is greatr! Long Live the Arabs!” The lead demonstrators carried signs with slogans of freedom and equality for the people. They clashed with police in the main square, and several protestors were shot dead on the spot. The police continued firing into the crowd, and the people scattered into the surrounding neighborhoods.

The authorities labeled them criminals, drug addicts, and terrorists. At 20:00 hours, they declared a state of siege and called up the army and security forces. They imposed martial law and began distributing weapons to their loyalists. Then, they let loose. Soldiers, policemen, and armed vigilantes were dispatched into the darkened neighborhoods with orders to shoot on sight. They referred to the operations as a “rat hunt.”

Groups of soldiers and policemen, reinforced with West African troops and enraged loyalist militiamen, attacked the local residents. Hundreds were summarily executed. Meanwhile, the army bombarded the towns with artillery and aircraft. The level of horrors peaked when tanks and armored carriers burst into neighborhoods and fired their cannon into houses and their inhabitants.

At daybreak, soldiers and militiamen came with trucks and began removing the dead. Bodies were dumped in wells or cremated in lime kilns. Saci Benhamla, who lived a few hundred meters from the incinerator of Héliopolis, described the intolerable stench of burning flesh, the haunting blue smoke emanating from the consumed corpses, and the incessant comings-and-goings of trucks unloading their gruesome cargo.

Militiamen rounded up survivors and drove them to the quarries of Kef El-Boumba and Hadj M’Barak, where they executed them en masse. Brahim Tahar recalled “trucks leaving the city with bound men in the rear. After an interval of ten to fifteen minutes, I would hear repeated gunshots.” Again at Kef El-Boumba, Khaled Ali “saw soldiers unload handcuffed men from the back of a lorry truck. They sprayed them with gasoline and burned them alive.”

The soldiers organized “ceremonies of submission” whereby their male captives were ordered to prostrate themselves before the national flag and repeat in chorus: “We are dogs.” After these ceremonies, they were also taken away and shot.

The first of the two entries above may well have been uttered by Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi in the first hours of the popular uprising, while he remained bemused by the goings-on in his cherished Jamahiriyya. (He has since recovered his sobriety and has delivered, along with his son Sayf al-Islam, unbearably robust threats against his population of vermin). The passage, however, is excerpted from Robert Graves’s semi-fictional study of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27BC68AD), still one of the more masterful literary forays into the chilling mindset of despotic rulers.

On page after page of I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Graves illustrates how political decision-making in the context of autocratic systems cannot be grasped in terms of philosophical clarity or public utility. Policy-making, in fact, has less to do with the practical needs of society at large and is more often than not a response to fluctuations in the balance of power within the closed circle of the ruler. The public realm is merely an attendant field of action to the extent that the modalities of the relationship between ruler and ruled, its validation and rationale, are determined elsewhere, out of public view and in the rarefied atmosphere of the inner corridors of power.

There is, however, little that is not reasonable or calculated in autocratic decision-making. Actions that seem opaque, even self-defeating, to the outside world become justifiable and sound when measured against the overriding necessity to shore up and legitimate an illegitimate political order. In impenetrable monocratic regimes, information-gathering, consensus-building and political negotiations are reduced to the narrowest scale possible and are instead fulfilled through rumor, cliquishness and intrigue. Claudius’s inability to fathom the discontent of the citizens of Rome, his utter disdain for their cause, and his surreal detachment from the gravity of the situation are emblematic of the political mentality that is bred in such conspiratorial settings.
Now that the unfolding revolutions in the Arab world may be compelling historians to re-write or un-write their accounts of the region, Graves’s two-volume history of the Julio-Claudian emperors seems a good model for delving into the sordid psychology of Muammar al-Qadhafi and other Arab tyrants. After all, the Julio-Claudian family brought us in near-succession the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero; tyrants whose ruthless, sometimes mythical, pursuit of absolute power is more than matched by the efforts of contemporary Arab counterparts. If anything, the recent protests from Morocco to Iraq have shown the deep extent to which the political psychology of the rulers may impact the course of events. A study of their mentalities and their assessments of political realities may shed needed light on the inner workings of the autocratic regimes that continue to hold sway in much of the Arab world.

More significantly, such a study should provide sobering insight into the lived experiences of Arab men and women over the last five or six or seven decades. Indeed, the second entry above also resonates with echoes from the current Libyan situation. But it relates to the massacres of May 8, 1945, when the forces of the provisional government of Free France marked the defeat of Nazism with the immolation of an estimated 20,000 Muslim Algerians in the regions of Sétif and Guelma. Historians are first to admit that such parallels do not convey any significant historical meaning. Yet, the analogies between the two contexts are too evocative to ignore: from the similar tactics and slogans deployed by the demonstrators to the authorities’ comparable methods and vocabulary of “pacification.”

Should not the disheartening continuities between French Algeria in May 1945 and Qadhafi’s Libya in February 2011, at both the practical and the rhetorical levels, compel us to question more critically how we, as scholars of the region, have approached the history of colonialism and nationalism in the Arab world? What are we to make of the foundational claim that nationalism was the be-all and end-all of anti-colonial movements, when it is clear that Arab societies continued to endure colonialism after colonialism? More, if as we are told, the signature paroxysms of violence by colonial regimes were indeed facilitated by ideologies of racial superiority and the systematic dehumanization of their colonized subjects, then how to explain Qadhafi’s resort to the same radicalized vocabulary, let alone the same genocidal firepower, against his people?

It may be time for scholars of the Middle East and North Africa to resist any temptation to uncouple the nationalist chapter from its colonialist antecedents, and to consider the common origins of political boundaries under autocratic regimes, whether colonial or national. To varying degrees, the citizens of Morocco, Algeria Libya, and Egypt, to name a few, have been revisiting formative phases from their bygone anti-colonial struggles. By the same token, they have been confronted by a mentality steeped in the practices and the language of the former colonial powers.

In bringing such commonalities to the foreground, historians of the Arab world may render some justice to the achievements of the frisky frogs who are overthrowing the post-colonial coloniality of their societies, and to the ironic poetry of the greasy rats who have taken to heart their Brotherly Leader’s invocation to purge their country of its “politically sick.”

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