How does one explain Muammar Gaddafi and Assad of Syria? Thomas Friedman in his excellent book From Beirut to Jerusalem best explains what is going on in Syria, Yemen and Libya today.
Friedman refers to a law of the desert to explain the actions of the authorities in response to their peoples’ uprising. He writes about a political tradition based on “tribe-like politics characterised by a harsh, survivalist quality and an adherence to certain intense primordial or kin-group forms of allegiance”.
The best way to understand the influence of tribalism in the modern Middle East is by looking at the phenomenon in its purest original form among the nomadic Bedouin of the desert.
Life in the desert, observed Clinton Bailey, an Israeli expert on the Bedouin of the Sinai and Negev deserts, was always dominated by two overriding facts: First, in the desert, water and grazing resources were so limited that everyone had to become a wolf to survive and be prepared to survive at the expense of the other tribe.
Second, in the desert, there was no outside mediator or government to enforce laws or to adjudicate disputes in a neutral way between tribes when they resorted to predatory behaviour in order to survive. In such a lonely world, the only way to survive was by letting others know that if they violated you in any way, you would make them pay and make them pay dearly.
You sent that message first and foremost by banding together in alliances. These alliances began with the most basic blood associations — the family — and then expanded to the clan and then to their tribes. Every Bedouin understood that because of the nature of his world, the bonds of kinship must be honoured before all other obligations; anyone who did not behave in this way was totally dishonored. Hence the Bedouin Arabic proverb: “Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.”
So, here we are. You have seen pictures of Gaddafi meeting tribesmen on television and similar in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Looked at from this point of view, the reactions of the despots of the Middle East, whether friends of the West or not, are perfectly normal. Certainly not excusable, but predictable!
I must make the point here that the only reason some dictators are not in the spotlight is because there, currently, is no revolution taking place in their country despite their record. Which is why Mubarak was a good guy until he officially became a bad guy as dictated by those who wield the most influential public opinion!
Now, lest I be accused of self-hate even though I am not Middle Eastern, I want to add this next point. Is this behaviour really unique to Middle Eastern civilisations? How would the US react if the Tea Party decided to take up arms in pursuit of their agenda? Indeed, how does a leader react to an insurrection? I am on tricky ground here. So let me quote from people that are better known and respected than I am.
Robert D Kaplan puts it thus: “I am not an optimist or an idealist. Americans can afford optimism partly because of their institutions, including the Constitution which was conceived by men who thought tragically. Before the first President was sworn in, the rules of impeachment were established.”
James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that men are so far beyond redemption that the only solution is to set ambition against ambition, and interest and against interest: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The French Revolution, conversely, began with boundless faith in the good sense of the masses — and in the capacity of intellectuals to engineer good results — and ended with the guillotine. In Machiavelli’s words, “Values, good or bad, are useless without arms to back them up.”
It is of course far more complex than that. For instance, how many have died at the hands of the state in Syria and Yemen why has the international community reacted differently to them compared to Libya?
There are the usual well-founded “oil” theories but Kaplan reminds us that “when reports surfaced of massive atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians in Chechnya, the same officials in the Clinton administration who had so forcefully advanced moral arguments for intervention in Kosovo suddenly went mute. Unlike Serbia, which could be bombed with impunity, Russia was a major power with a nuclear arsenal”.
Samuel P Huttington argues that “the most important political distinction among countries concerns is not their form of government, but their degree of government”.
Now to my point. I read or heard the following expression somewhere: “Just because it is this way, does not mean it ought to be that way.” Whether you are a civilian in Afghanistan, Yemen, the Palestinian territories or Ivory Coast, my advice is the same: the good must be better at being good than the bad are at being themselves.
For, you must understand that the bad and the ruthless will always be and act that way in the majority of cases. The good must learn to be determinedly and stubbornly good or else the elites in power will always decide your destiny.
A 30- year-old man born in and living in Afghanistan, for instance, has only ever known war not because he chose to but because the elite, whether in the Kremlin, the White House or the Madrasah decided so. Given the choice, all he really wants is to raise a family and have a fair shot at life in the same way that a 30-year-old man in Canada does.
The world is a cold, unfeeling place and the good must awake from their slumber and shape the destinies of their societies in much the same way as Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore. They must view anything less as unacceptable and be prepared to protect the good.
Life is too short.
l Albert Gumbo is an alumni of the Duke University-UCT US-Southern
Africa Centre for Leadership and Public Values.