Educators address unrest in Libya
March 8, 2011Tweet
A standing-room only crowd of Binghamton University’s African Student Organization (ASO) members gathered in front of a panel of University professors and teaching assistants on Feb. 28, for a discussion of the political crisis in Libya. The panel included Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities Ali A. Mazrui; Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Akbar Muhammed; Moulay Ali Bouanani, lecturer in Africana studies; and Teaching Assistant Ramzi Badran.
“On this side we have one Jordanian (Badran) and one Moroccan (Bouanani), and on [the other] side we have one American (Muhammed) and one Kenyan (Mazrui),” Mazrui said. “So we have a pretty diverse perspective of what’s happening in the Middle East.”
The current situation in Libya is the latest in a series of public protests occurring in North African Arab countries against authoritarian regimes. Libyan citizens have been rioting since mid-February against the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who has been in power since 1969. The uprising is said to be rooted in public grievances against ills that have long afflicted the state, including corruption in the government and high unemployment.
Each panelist offered his own analysis on the nature of the protests in Libya and other Arab countries.
Mazrui, who is director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies, began the discussion with a background of previous anti-government protests.
“The African part of the Arab world did not start with this particular uprising,” he said. “The earliest one took place in Sudan in 1964, successfully ousting General Ibrahim Abboud. More recently there has been the successful ousting of Bin Ali in Tunisia, and there has been the ousting of Mubarak in Egypt.”
Many Arab countries today have colonial foundations, the legacy of which has affected the stability of regimes formed after independence. In 1969, there was a military coup in Libya, resulting in Gaddafi gaining power, Mazrui said.
Mazrui said he believes that Gaddafi’s current state of mind is “he thinks people love him.
“If he doesn’t step down peacefully there are two other alternatives,” Mazrui said. “Either they will kill him, or he is in such denial that when he finds the truth he may kill himself, though that is unlikely to happen.”
Bouanani’s focus was an analysis of an emerging consciousness of Libyans to be recognized as citizens.
“If the French revolution was about the French and food, then the Tunisian revolution was also about livelihood,” he said. “The systems there were so rotten that the majority of people your age [the audience] were desperate. They had no future, and in Egypt it was the same thing. These uprisings were for freedom.”
Gaddafi is seen as being a champion for the rights of Africans, more so than the rights of Arab-Africans. Bouanani’s voice took on a more personal tone as he described his own witnessing of Gaddafi’s influence in his native country, Morocco.
“He has done much harm to the country where I come from,” Bouanani said. “He has financed a separatist movement in southern Morocco, which has caused Morocco a lot of harm, and has pushed back its democracy.”
Bouanani also commented on what he sees as a misconception that Gaddafi has about his power.
“Gaddafi considers himself a leader and not a president, which is a reason for his clinging to power,” Bouanani said. “When he took power, the Libyans were scattered everywhere. They were just coming out of World War II, so the population was not really aware of what was going on. Now that they are gaining consciousness of their identity, they know if they are a citizen, and that they should be treated like a citizen.”
Disagreeing with Bouanani, Badran said the reasoning behind the uprisings in Libya goes beyond a mere call for freedom.
Badran attributed the lack of support Arab rulers are experiencing to a resistance to change, which they interpret as a cause of instability.
To many Americans, the movements for change in the Arab world look like the beginnings of a larger call for democratization. Badran suggested that this is not the case.
“These uprisings are not for democracy, they are for change. Saying that they are for freedom is misleading. They don’t have the democratic institutions in place yet,” Badran said.
Last to take the floor was Muhammed. As an expert in African history, Muhammed implored the members of ASO and the other students there to not forget the colonial history of Libya, beginning with the Ottomans.
“The Ottomans intermarried with the Libyans,” Mohammed said, “This intermarriage gave some people a feeling of superiority over others.”
Although Ottoman rule brought ethnic conflict to Libya, Mohammed reminded the audience that Libya had its own ethnic problems before the Ottomans arrived.
Ethnic conflict is a problem that afflicts many African countries, which has escalated into full-scale 20th- and 21st-century ethnic genocide in countries such as Rwanda and Darfur.
“In Libya these ethnic groups do not really see each other as brothers. They have a problem of unity,” Muhammed said.
Some people in the audience sat up in their seats as Muhammed’s voice rose as he elaborated on the lack of unity in Libya.
“Gaddafi tried to unite the country. If you compare him to Nasser [former president of Egypt] and other leaders, you will find that they did not have the same ethnic problems that Libya had. They had fewer ethnic groups. You need someone who is going to forcibly unite the people.”
Muhammed concluded the discussion by speaking of the importance of linking contemporary events with those of the past.
“We should focus on the present to a certain extent, but as a historian I believe the present is a child of the past,” he said. “I think that if we understand more about the historical building-up of what we see, we will be able to better analyze what exists. The differences between the groups in Libya are such that national unity won’t happen for some time.”