James Traub: The End of the Arab Dream





[James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.]

If Muammar al-Qaddafi falls, as seems increasingly likely, he will land with the rending crash of an immense, rigid object, like the statue of Saddam Hussein pulled down in Baghdad's Firdos Square. This is not because, despite his own delusions, Qaddafi mattered to the world remotely as much as Saddam did. Rather, it's because the Jamahiriya, or stateless society, he fostered in Libya constitutes the last of the revolutionary fantasies with which Arab leaders have mesmerized their citizens and justified their ruthless acts of repression since the establishment of the modern Arab world in the years after World War II.

Qaddafi and the other junior officers who overthrew Libya's King Idris in a bloodless coup in 1969 were inspired by the revolt of the Free Officers in Egypt, who had similarly deposed an unpopular, pro-Western monarch in 1952. The Free Officers under Gamal Abdel Nasser declared a new socialist regime, confiscating the properties and eliminating the privileges of the old elite. Especially after the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations in 1955, Nasser's pan-Arab vision, which would dissolve colonial borders in order to establish an Arab superstate, became the default ideology of a generation of young thinkers and activists in the Middle East....

The Libyan leader's ambitions turned out to be yet more grandiose than Nasser's. Qaddafi's Green Book, first published in 1975, offered a design for a state ruled directly by its own citizens with none of the usual mediating institutions -- parties, parliaments, even central government. The revolution would abolish as well the institutions of private ownership. "Whoever possesses the house in which you dwell, the vehicle in which you ride or the income on which you live," Qaddafi wrote, "possesses your freedom, or part of it." This freedom, however, belonged not to the individual but to the collective, for "the individual is linked to the larger family of humankind like a leaf is to a branch or a branch to a tree. They have no value or life if they are separated." The Green Book was an exercise, if a daft one, in utopian totalitarianism....

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