Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have been collapsing unexpectedly over the past year, or at least are under severe challenge by their own people for the first time in decades. In Tunisia, the first North African country to overthrow an entrenched dictatorship, the recent elections appear to have been free and fair, resulting in the election of a moderate Islamic government and the other nations of the region will be fortunate indeed if they are able to follow this model. In Libya, the United Nations Security Council has just called for an end to NATO military operations and a transition to democracy with respect for the rule of law and human rights. Moreover, the UN has insisted on respect for human rights in Egypt and a full investigation of recent clashes between Christians and Muslims there. In both Libya and Egypt, the danger of civil war and fragmentation along ethnic, religious and tribal lines remains all too real, and it would be a tragedy if these countries turned into another Iraq or Afghanistan. Certainly the African Union can play an important part, such as by sending observer missions as it did in the recent elections in Tunisia and opening a new liaison office in Tripoli, Libya to support the transition to democracy. Universities and non-governmental organizations will have influence in these transition phases as well, especially in coordinating with educational institutions and other sectors of civil society. Global economic institutions like the G-20, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization will be involved as well, although grave doubts remain about their receptiveness to the needs and interests of developing nations or the extremely limited influence poorer countries have in their policymaking.
Recent events in Libya and Egypt have taken a dramatic turn, particularly with the death of Col. Muamar Kadaffy and the official end of NATO operations there, as well as ongoing riots and clashes in Egypt between religious groups and elements of the old regime. In both cases, the transition to democracy is not at all certain to be smooth or rapid, although the United Nations and the Western powers have been using their influence to assist in this process. Egypt's transition to democracy seems to be slowing down since elections have not been held yet and recent clashes between Christians and Muslims, perhaps provoked by security forces and elements of the old regime, raised fears that the country could devolve into another Iraq. The United Nations does have some influence in this situation, and "called on authorities to carry out an impartial and independent investigation into the incident" (UN News Centre, October 11, 2011). About twenty-four people were killed and hundreds injured, mainly by the military and police, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). All the Western nations also "urged the authorities to ensure the protection of all, including minority groups, in their rightful exercise of such freedoms" (UN News Centre, October 11, 2011).
In Libya on October 27, 2011, the UN Security Council ordered an end to NATO military operations, since Col. Kadaffy was dead and military resistance had crumbled with the capture of his hometown. This resolution also ended the no-fly zone over Libya and was passed unanimously by all fifteen members, who also stated that "the North African country now had better prospects for a 'democratic, peaceful and prosperous future there'" (UN News Centre, October 27, 2011). The Security Council called for a gradual transition to democracy with the rule of law, transparency and respect for human rights, while avoiding reprisals and extrajudicial executions. Libya's National Transition Council also announced that the country had been completely liberated, eight months after the uprising began.
Almost all of the countries in North Africa and have been under authoritarian rule for decades, yet every one of them has been shaken by the protests and popular revolutions over the past year. Protests have even spread to Burkina Faso, Nigeria and other West African states that have usually not been particularly responsive to the popular will. In Burkina Faso, even though it received little international coverage, demonstrators were outraged when police beat a high school student to death and began to demand "the departure of the president, Blaise Compaore, who has been in office for 24 years" (Illy and Omobolaji 2011). Because of the revolts throughout the Middle East authoritarian African leaders are now extremely nervous, although as with the Middle East and North Africa whether this will result in long lasting change remains to be seen. Nigeria's national assembly quickly passed a Freedom of Information law and a new minimum wage bill which had been stalled for many years. That such swift passage "came in the wake of the popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa" was hardly a coincidence. At present, the political situation in West Africa remains tense as the effects of popular rebellions in North Africa continue to ripple through the rest of the continent (Illy and Omobolaji 2011).
Cynthia McKinney, a well-known American antiwar activist who has been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, opposed military intervention in Libya. Her criticism is no longer particularly relevant at this point, given that Col. Kadaffi is dead and the United Nations has brought the NATO mission to an end. Whether or not the country will hold together or erupt into tribal and civil war remains to be seen, although she is correct that Al Fateh University will have a useful and worthwhile role to play in the reconstruction of Libya. She wrote that "student life seemed vibrant. This feel and ambiance of this university was not unlike the hundreds of other universities that I have visited in the U.S. And around the world" (McKinney 2011). Libya will have considerable revenue from oil resources and some of that should be spent on education at all levels, including the building program that she described at the university. Programs to expand international cooperation with other universities should be continued and expanded.
Campus B. has 10,000 undergraduates, over 800 graduate students and 400 faculty and staff, although it was damaged by a NATO missile strike none of the students were killed and the damage does not appear to be irreparable. Al Fateh University is basically free to all students, charging nothing for books and only about $9 a year for tuition, and this policy should continue now that the war is over. Compared to American universities, which students today graduate with debts of tens of thousands of dollars, this system of free education is certainly preferable. McKinney is also correct in observing that the populations of the developing world truly do need "voting rights, democracy, medical care, education, welfare" and policies that enhance "personal income and wealth distribution" (McKinney 2011). It remains to be seen whether the new government of Libya will be a democratic one that can provide for the social and economic needs of its people.
Although the Arab Spring did arouse hopes that real democracy would become possible for the first time in these countries, ensuring such a transition will be problematic at best. Before the uprisings and revolutions began, most of the Arab countries were Limited Access Orders (LAOs) that "incorporated only a very limited range of organizations in the dominant coalition -- ruling families, the army, perhaps one or two loyal political parties, as well as religious organizations and business firms that allied with the political elite or at least stayed out of politics" (Webb 2011). Popular organizations, labor unions, women's groups and political parties were suppressed or not allowed to exist at all as part of the political system. Any genuine democratic transition will have to permit these to exist and participate in the new political process. As in most developing nations and extremely oligarchic Western nations like the United States, most economic rents went into the hands of favored elites. In the Middle East and North Africa, reconstruction will mean that previously excluded groups will be demanding an increased share of these rents, but "even if they hold fair elections, they will not soon become Western European-style democracies" (Webb 2011).
Middle Eastern dictators like Assad, Kadaffi and Mubarak exercised highly corrupt and personalistic forms of rule, yet they were aided by the military, security forces, cronies and family-led economic organizations and paramilitary groups. Even with the head of the dictatorship removed "these organizations have retained their violence potential, their interests and political importance will usually persist, so they are likely to play a role in the evolving political arrangements" (Webb 2011). They will very likely remain in place for decades, although this does not necessarily mean that they will remain purely authoritarian systems like China and Myanmar. Elections should be open to participation by popular organizations that are free to organize their supporters and include them in the sharing out of economic rents. If this does not occur, then violence, tribal…