Islamist Autumn: Could Gaddafi's End, Tunisian Vote Radicalize Arab Revolution?

Analysis: The democratic wave sweeping North Africa is moving in a decidedly Islamic direction, with the Ennahda party's election victory in Tunisia and Libya's new leaders vowing Sharia law. Is it just a necessary phase toward pluralism

Alexandre Najjar

He could have ended up in exile in Venezuela, with Hugo Chavez; or followed Hitler and Goebbel's lead, and committed suicide. But he died in Syrte, his native city, where he had been hiding out for weeks, a bit like a "rat," his favorite word for the young insurgents demanding his fall.

He died, lynched by rebels who, applying the law of the jungle, weren't able to behave in a more dignified manner than his. Gaddafi died at the end of a siege that cost hundreds of insurgent and civilian lives, because, locked in the bubble that prevented him from looking reality in the eye and admitting his defeat, he continued to believe he would prevail. Until the very end he was convinced armies of African mercenaries would fly to his rescue and turn the situation in his favor.

Some people were happy with his violent demise, afraid that a trial would wake up too many old demons, throw oil on the fire. They forget that judging Gaddafi would be needed to shed light on the terrorist acts he committed over the course of 42 years, and to bring justice to the families of his victims. The tyrant is taking many of his secrets to the grave.

Today, everyone is turning the page. The liberation was just officially announced in Benghazi. But everything still lies ahead: national reconciliation, disarming of civilians and the creation of a regular army. Libya must also create a provisional government according to the terms of the constitution, elect an Assembly of representatives, write a constitution, choose a president, rewrite laws, reform institutions, execute an economic recovery plan and rebuild the country. Everything.

Will the National Transitional Council (NTC) be up to the task of uniting Libyans given that its detractors claim that it has no control whatsoever over the youth in the street? How can you build a democracy in a country where, thanks to the old system put in place by Gaddafi, people don't even know the most basic principals?

What will the role be for Western - and Eastern - powers, who have already decided to try to take a share of the economic pie? And what about the petro-dollars that the tyrant stashed away overseas, and his investments in Africa and elsewhere? Should it become property of the Libyan people, impoverished as they are by war?

But there is an even more worrying question to pose: Do we risk having the revolution hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists? The clumsy and premature declaration by the leader of the NTC regarding the implementation of Sharia law and a return to polygamy sowed worry in many - and scandalized the majority of Libyan women, who actively participated in the revolution.

Islamic sentiment had been building for years

Taken together with the success of Ennahda in Tunisia, and the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the declaration from the new Libyan authority is an eloquent illustration of the tidal wave of Islamic fundamentalism sweeping the countries recently liberated from tyranny.

Could we have seen this wave coming? Without a doubt. For years, soaring religiosity has taken over Arab communities confronted with the misery and suppression brought about by dictators. As both refuge and outlet, religion has become the lifeline for millions of Arabs who are at the same time subjected to a methodological televised proselytism brought by satellite TV.

In addition, many dictatorial regimes didn't hesitate to take advantage of the Islamic fundamentalists, using them both as a form of blackmail (dictatorship or fundamentalism) and as a strawman opposition to create an illusion of democracy.

Faced with this situation, opinion is divided. Some think that all revolutions have to pass through an extremist phase before democracy can take root. Others think the Islamists are backed into a corner and should work with progressive and modernist parties, following the Turkish model.

In Libya's case, the situation is even more precarious because the Islamic fundamentalists, who have long suffered under Gaddafi, are armed to the teeth and want to go even further than does the head of the NTC. Encouraged by the Ennahda's success in Tunisia, they would certainly like to impose their ideas on the moderates of the new regime.

Given all these new developments, what might the international community do next? Now that is has rid itself of Gaddafi, the international powers should run to the rescue of the Syrian insurgents, who have been crushed by tanks and airplanes, and forced into concentration camps. If it closes it's eyes to the crimes of the tyrant in Damascus, the international community risks losing all of the credibility it gained during the Libyan campaign. All things considered, these tyrants are not much different, one from the next.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - americanistadechiapas

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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