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Some return to the past, others look to the future

A few days ago, I attended the World Government Summit in Dubai. Boasting contributions from a select group of leading political, economic, scientific and intellectual figures, it took place a few days before the seventh anniversary of the popular uprising that ended Muammar Qaddafi’s rule in Libya.
It was a true summit, given the political, economic and scientific ideas and visions, whether expressed from the podium or through side dialogues and exchanges. It came as a vivid reflection of interest in the future, anticipating and preparing for it. The future neither waits for nor forgives the unprepared, or those who yearn for a backward, restrictive and destructive past.
I refuse to describe Qaddafi’s rule between 1969 and 2011 as a regime. I remember well when news of the 1969 revolution broke. I received the news through my little transistor radio that King Idris Al-Senussi was toppled. I heard that a group of young army officers brought down the king’s regime, which our generation — the one of the 1967 defeat by Israel — believed had passed its sell-by date.
Our angry and rebellious generation never forgave the regime, which we were told contributed directly to the defeat. In those days, we were totally convinced that the defeat would not have happened had it not been for enemy fighter jets taking off from a US air base near Tripoli to bomb Egypt.
I followed news reports from Libya one by one. I heard initially that the coup leader was an officer called Saadeddine Bu-Shuweireb. Some time passed before the names of the real planners and executors were revealed. The new rulers were a group of young officers led by Qaddafi who, copying earlier Arab military coups, formed a Revolutionary Command Council before the revolution began to devour its children.
As well as the young officers, among the earliest members of the new governing elite were a melange of young intellectuals such as Palestinian-born Premier Mahmood Suleiman Al-Maghribi, and veteran opposition politicians such as Foreign Minister Saleh Massoud Bouweissir.
Among my generation, there was a strong wish to be optimistic after such an ignominious defeat in 1967. We rejected any reappraisal or calls for accountability because we were convinced that our defeat was solely due to a foreign conspiracy, thus dismissing our fragile political structures, bad reading of realities and misunderstanding of the world around us.

The leaderships of the Gulf states, through realistic pragmatism based on common interests, built institutions that have managed to limit the damage, dangers and threats from post-1979 Iran.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Foreign conspiracy was a potent drug not only because it was partly true, but also because it gave us an excuse against self-criticism and shouldering responsibility. Qaddafi and his colleagues were sons of that generation.
For him and them, everything began and ended with a foreign conspiracy, so his magic prescription contained two ingredients: Revolutionizing society via mass youth movements, and achieving any kind of union, at any price, in order to prevent division and fragmentation.
I reckon the intentions of Qaddafi and his fellow officers were sincere. In fact, he and Gaafar Nimeiry — who had led a military coup in Sudan a few months earlier — enjoyed the blessings of Nasserist Egypt. Many, like me, saw the coups in Sudan and Libya as a practical response to the 1967 defeat, and as a means of repairing damaged dreams and ambitions, especially as Egypt had begun its war of attrition against Israel in the then-occupied Sinai.
But those dreams and ambitions soon proved to be unreal, and rapidly foundered. The end of Nasserism after the death of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in September 1970 brought an awareness of what was really going on in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Changes were taking place and new realities were emerging throughout the region.
The era of Abdel-Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat began underlining and intensifying Egyptian identity. Palestinian resistance to Israel had to change its tactical, strategic and even geographic priorities after the conflict in September 1970 between Jordan’s military and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The revolutions led by Nimeiry and Qaddafi also underwent massive tests, which led the former to turn against the left, and the latter against Arabism. Even Iraq and Syria, the two Baathist competitors aspiring to inherit the mantle of Arabism relinquished by Egypt after it made peace with Israel, changed. Iraq and Syria became minority-led, and within a few decades became occupied and sectarian failed states.
In the opposite direction, the oil boom spurred unprecedented development in the Gulf states. The leaderships of these states, through realistic pragmatism based on common interests, built institutions that have managed to limit the damage, dangers and threats from post-1979 Iran.
Amazing predictions were made at the World Government Summit in Dubai. I was particularly thrilled by Professor Michio Kaku’s presentation about groundbreaking future innovations. But soon after leaving this journey into the future, I looked back at the past, then the present, and felt the pain.
In this world, there are those who plan for the next 20, 50, even 100 years, while we go backward hundreds of years. Even in the Gulf, there is a tiny minority that seeks to turn back the march to the future.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.
Twitter: @eyad1949