Country revolutions – beyond the headlines

The Arab Spring has been revolutionary,
particularly in Libya
If you’d asked me 12 months ago what the term ‘Arab Spring’ meant, I’d have had no idea.

I probably would’ve guessed it was a flower shop in Darlinghurst or some obscure film that’s shown in art-house cinemas.

The truth is, the Arab Spring is one of the most important events of the 21st Century, but it’s also one of the most complicated events.

You see, in mid-2008, most of the so-called Arab world (countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman etc. – the Middle East in many respects) was ruled by oil tycoons, military dictators, religious fanatics and fascists.

Take Libya for example. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi came to power in a bloodless military coup pledging to rid Libya of corruption. The result was very different. Once he realised how much he loved power, he subtly strengthened his grip on just about every level of the government and corporate world.

The citizens on the streets were, in many ways, quite oppressed.

This all changed in 2010 when a Tunisian protestor set himself on fire in appeal against police brutality.

Essentially, this was the first trickle of stones that began an avalanche. Soon, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt and a bunch of other nations had full-scale uprisings on their hands.

The tempting line of narration here is to assume: “Hurrah! Evil dictators are being removed from power allowing peace and prosperity to prevail.”

The problem is, this is far too simple a perspective.

An article from the February 4th edition of The Economist sheds some light on the larger picture. It writes:

“Whatever its political triumphs, the revolution has caused an economic downturn. Tunisia saw its GDP growth in 2011 go from 3% to 0%, according to the IMF—the Tunisian government says the economy actually contracted by 1.8%. Egypt saw a decline from 5% to 1%.

Libya’s economy is thought to have contracted by more than 50% after its six-month civil war paralysed the oil industry. A former Libyan bank governor reckons the country suffered as much as $15 billion in damage during the conflict to oust Colonel Muammar Qaddafi”

On the surface, these stats sound sourly hollow. The problem is, the flow-on effects of a contraction in a country’s economy of 50% are significant.

If people were already reasonably ‘poorly off’ under a dictator like Qaddafi, imagine how fewer resources are available to lift people out of poverty if the already pressured economy contracts by a further 50%!

What’s more, much of the country needs to be almost entirely rebuilt. Foreign Governments are fighting financial crises of their own so they’re hardly going to be tempted to lend a helping hand by starting trade with Libya again. And you can forget about tourists travelling there.

What this means is, while Qaddafi may be gone, and the world may be rejoicing, and despite the press coverage moving on, the plight of Libyans is still a pertinent one.

While the headlines may dictate that Libya is now free, the reality is a vastly different picture.

The Economist writes:

“Post-revolution Libya is largely lawless. Young, unemployed men with guns roam the streets. Security firms are decamping from Baghdad to Tripoli. Tattooed former soldiers populate the breakfast rooms of reopened business hotels.”

While there's potential for Libya to rebuild and eventually thrive (the country has the world’s eighth-largest oil reserves), this could be a very long journey.

So, by all means, let’s celebrate the removal from power of a violent dictator, but let’s not forget there’s a whole country which needs rebuilding.

And until that happens, the people who started the ‘Arab Spring’ are, in many respects, not that much better off than they were before it all began.