Given the national obsession with the phone-hacking scandal, you might be forgiven for forgetting there are a number of wars on, at least two of them involving UK forces. The thought certainly crossed my mind at the London School of Economics this week when I saw a large crowd queuing to attend a debate about the apparent demise of the British press.
Big-name pundits including David Aaronovitch were on the bill, with high-profile media law adviser Charlotte Harris and super-blogger Paul “Guido Fawkes” Staines. Their exchanges would be tweeted live – surely relegating a rival event I was attending at the LSE about conflicts in the Arab world to a trivial sideshow?
Not so, I am delighted to report, and the reason was Lisa Anderson, the first female president of the American University in Cairo (AUC). While blagging and zapping dominated the event next door, more than 400 people turned up to hear Anderson speaking about “Democracy, Authoritarianism and Regime Change in the Arab World“, at an event organised by the LSE’s Middle East Centre. Many more were left outside the packed lecture theatre, giving an indication of how important an expert analysis of the ongoing foreign policy crisis remains to British audiences.
Anderson started her current job in January, just after Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street grocer, set himself on fire in protest at his government’s inability to allow him a decent life. Bouazizi’s subsequent death led to revolutions that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, which are still raging in Libya, Syria and the Yemen.
The AUC was founded in 1919, when a vast popular revolution in Egypt led to nominal independence from British rule in 1922. The historical parallel with 2011 was not lost on Anderson, who is confident that the Tahrir Square uprising which she witnessed in person is sustainable, as is the one that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Not so in other countries, including Libya, where RAF bombs and missiles are among those trying to pulverise Muammar Gaddafi into submission, just as they are trying but failing to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Anderson is a Libya specialist, which made her continual references to “state collapse” in the country particularly worrying. She highlighted the “relative ease with which the Egyptians and Tunisians were able to slip out from under their governments to begin building new regimes, while the Libyans and Yemenis seem to be fighting long and as yet inconclusive civil wars, and Syria’s citizens face a brutal onslaught from their own rulers”.
Indicating the kind of long-term problems inherent within Arab dictatorships, Anderson drew attention to Gaddafi’s 42-year history of maintaining his revolution by containing tribal rivalries, arguing: “In Libya, one of the few features of life all Libyans share is their passport, and it displays the name of a country – the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – to which very few feel any affinity or loyalty. Thus, the breakdown of the regime has triggered a collapse of the state apparatus, which in turn provoked political opportunism and alliance-building that may or may not be sustainable.”
A “stalemated civil war” in Libya has increased fear among the civilian population so that, even when the conflict ends, “the rebuilding of the state apparatus, and the construction of a regime that can take responsibility for its functioning, will very likely require international assistance – and its recipients are likely to mistrust and resent offers of such assistance,” said Anderson gloomily.
More positive words were almost always reserved for Libya’s neighbouring north African states, as Anderson explained: “There is ample reason for great optimism in Egypt and Tunisia. Strong states, populations with robust identities as citizens, and increasingly experienced and agile political actors bode well for a successful – if difficult – regime change and the building of sustainable institutions of more open, transparent and accountable government.”
While the French government does not rule out the possibility of Gaddafi still negotiating an end to the stalemate, Anderson was adamant that any democratic progression would not include him. “I think the regime is absolutely finished,” she told me after her talk. “The Gaddafi family cannot be salvaged.”
There is no doubt that, news-wise at least, the future of the Arab revolts is currently playing second fiddle to the ongoing inquiries into News International but, as Anderson’s pithy analysis made clear, revolutionary tumult remains just as compelling a story.