Detainees from Libya’s war against supporters of the late dictator are reportedly facing torture in their thousands as the provisional NTC government endeavours to assert its authority. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has expressed extreme concern for the fate of these detainees, urging the NTC to bring these detention centres under the authority of the justice ministry and general prosecutors office, granting them a fair trial. However, Libya’s provisional government is struggling, attempting to wrestle control of the country from increasingly belligerent fighters while simultaneously grappling with its own legitimacy.

This could be the failure of the irresponsible few to maintain the values of the revolution; but perhaps this is the first sign of significant retributive activity in the aftermath of successful 2011-2012 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa- perhaps it presents us with a forecast for the future of other nations in similar situations, and serves as a warning to all those involved in political activity in the region, both domestically and internationally.

The overwhelming power of the majority, and the consequential marginalisation of the minority, has been a perennial flaw in democratic theory since its inception, but it is particularly prevalent in post-revolutionised countries. Once those in power are ousted, they become the new heretics, vilified as the minority who propped up the old regime. One can argue that the unity of the majority is a useful platform for a functional representative governance because shared values and aspirations can promote a country’s progress, but when it is a unity forged by a common enemy, power becomes a tyranny of the masses rather than a just all-inclusive democracy.

Without mitigation, revenge against the new heretics in political vacuity can lead not only to abuses of human rights in a temporary transitional phase, but to the replacement of one totalitarian state with another. A society fired up by the fervour of change, intent on reintroducing national and religious values to a country starved of it under repressive and foreign ideologies, and resistant to the anomie of Western liberal capitalism, is likely to reduce freedom of the individual to a system where individuality is attained only through association with the community; a unity forged by a common domestic enemy will lead to retributive persecution and the formulation of a polity which prevents intellectual freedom and ultimately, democracy.

This sort of fragmented, seemingly uncontrollable retribution is a frequent outcome of revolutionary and rapid regime change. In the midst of the chaos of the uprising, and the resulting absence of authority, activists taste independence from any form of governance. In lieu of any strong, central command, local strongholds and militias are necessarily formed, and vigilante justice takes  hold. This is the gritty reality of not only creating structures and processes that, prior to revolution, did not exist, but also reviving societal cohesion following the turmoil and trauma of the Arab Spring.

In Libya, reports are emerging of an estimated 8000 pro-Gaddafi supporters being held in secret detention centres by revolutionary militias, still independent of any central governing force. Several people died from torture, and ‘Medecins Sans Frontieres has suspended operations in Misrata after treating 115 patients with torture-related wounds’. With armed gangs yet an ever-present force in Libya, and the interim National Transitional Council unable to exert authority or control over them, the stage is set for vengeful eradication of what is left of Gaddafi’s loyalists, a classification often decided by whoever is wielding weapons.

In Syria, political violence has already gripped Homs and may well spread further across the country. Bashar al-Assad’s highly militarised security regime, and all who support it, have become demonised as opponents to the dignity of the country and people of Syria. The problem there is that political violence is appearing along religious lines- the Alawite community’s emergence into the political infrastructure during Hafez al-Assad’s rule has caused tensions between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority which are based on a resentment felt towards the government, rather than the differences in theology. But many of the new heretics in Syria’s case are Alawites, and retributive violence could turn from political to sectarian in motivation if stability is not regained quickly. Many consider sectarianism in Syria to be a fallacy generated by mendacious governmental propaganda which portrays activists as Islamic terrorists and designed to frighten non-Muslim minorities into submission and loyalty to the regime. But again, retributive violence might be only one dimension of the problem- Islam might be utilised in uniting the majority against the minority.

Crisis Project asked London-based Syrians what they wanted from a new Syria- the answer was almost unanimously: whatever the people decide they want. However, this is democracy in its simplest form- rather than stimulated and reasoned debate in the public sphere for the purposes of accountable governance, ‘democracy’ is limited to language and nothing more. And when asked about the role of Islam in a new Syrian politics, many answered that the majority of Syrians were Muslims, so the new politics must reflect that. To be clear, Islam can be conflated with democracy and individual liberty can be promoted through Islamic values. But depending on the most preferred Islamic intelligentsia in a country, political Islam is also capable of restricting certain voices and preventing open debate.

The problem may well arise in Egypt too. Although retributive violence is unlikely, there seems to be a gap between the word or notion of ‘democracy’ and the implementation of a representative governance. Article 3 of the 2011 Provisional Egyptian Constitution ‘sovereignty is from the people only’ but Article 56 gives all administrative control to the military. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are due to step down after the Presidential elections in July and will be handing over authority to a lower house occupied largely by the ‘Freedom and Justice Party’ (The Muslim Brotherhood) and the ‘Al-Nour’ Party (Salafists). It will be interesting to see how the constitution is changed and who gains control of interpreting the Quran- this will determine how far the rule of law is based on a particular identity and how those excluded from that community are perceived.

Action must be taken now across the Middle East and North Africa to prevent the revolutions creating a renewed tyranny of the masses. Retributive violence can take place in the chaos of the immediate aftermath- provisional government bodies such as the Syrian National Council need to plan how members of the old regime will be dealt with if the government falls. Further, the institutionalisation of  polities defined by the interests and identity of the majority, disregarding the rights of minorities, is a distinct possibility if provisional government bodies do not substantiate the calls for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. The international community should also provide assistance wherever it is needed and wanted because retributive violence will have transnational as well as national implications and future governments and citizens will suffer as a result.


By Luke Errington-Barnes and Michael Everard, 27/01/2012

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