By Shaun Randol
What does it mean to create a society? To be in a society? Nicaraguan poet and former Sandinista revolutionary, Gioconda Belli, writes in her page-turning memoir, The Country under My Skin, about traveling to once-forbidden sites in Managua in the days immediately following the fall of Anastasio Samoza’s regime:
“The state had been completely dissolved. There were no courts, no police, no army, no government ministries. Just abandoned offices, deserted military bunkers. It was an odd sensation to have been subversive guerillas and fugitives only a day earlier, and now, suddenly—as young as we were, no less—to find ourselves in a city deserted by the ancient regime, conscious that from then on, everything was up to us.”
Starting over. Starting from zero. This is the reward of a successful revolutionary movement.
Let us not be so quick to judge the victors of the democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya. The youth and other revolutionaries have dismantled autocracies that have ruled for decades. The governing regimes have been gutted, dismantled, destroyed, obliterated.
And now these governments must be rebuilt. It will take time.
I began Brooklyn Book Festival 2011 at the Arab Spring and the Seasons Ahead panel, where Libyan writer Hisham Matar, Egyptian writers Yasmine el Rashidi and Lucette Lagnado, and Iraqi-American writer (and intellectual heavyweight of the hour) Sinan Antoon spoke on 2011’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as mentions of happenings in Bahrain, Syria, and nearby states.
I was attracted to the words of Matar (see my video interview with him), who eloquently spoke about the ramifications of revolution in Libya. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi represents a fundamental event in which Libyans must ask themselves, what does it mean to be in a society? Previously, there was little need to ask this question, for under a dictatorship, a modicum of certainty exists: the books one can (not) read, the things one can (not) say, the places one can (not) go, are all known. Once the regime is removed, so are the rules, and a moment of uncertainty takes hold. New questions must be asked, and new answers must be sought. The success of the Libyan revolution represents, as Matar put it, a moment of “maturity” for the Libyan people.
Yet the Libyan revolution is not only significant for Libyans. The revolution demands that the United States and other Western and NATO countries take a long, hard, sincere, self-critical look at their rhetoric and actions toward Middle Eastern countries (and other dictatorships around the world).
Matar’s idea is not particularly new—the world is quite aware that American ideals and actions don’t always align. But wouldn’t it be nice if, just for a change, American diplomats and generals took the Arab Spring to be not only an Arab Awakening (as it is known in Arabic-speaking countries), but to be an American Awakening as well? Will the events in the Middle East act as a reality check for American moral action? Or will the American government learn nothing and skip its own moment of maturity?