he Prague Spring of 1968 is not remembered as a bust but as a brightly lit flare of anti-Communist idealism. Memories of Czech headiness erase images of Russian tanks.
Same with North Africa’s Arab Spring of 2011. Food riots-turned political suddenly shook Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with Syria bringing up the rear. Many cheered the liberating lurches, though all but Tunisia’s came undone. Since then, the military has returned to its Egyptian perch, Syria has come to cannibalize itself, and Moammar Gadafi-less Libya is less a state than a state of factions embittered into a hateful totality. The Libyan enemy the West grew to know and memorize — chameleonic Gadafi — has been subsumed by a plague of opportunists and militants eager to terrorize or simply cash in.
The latest Libya twist is the ascent of Sunni militants under the banner of ISIS, which has emerged as the most coherently organized post-Arab Spring militia mostly because its West-bashing, caliphate-building mission is the easiest to understand and the best at absorbing and deploying the enraged. It’s a magnet and an aggregator of disaffected thugs whose methods resemble Italian fascism. Secular Mussolini recruited town bullies, dressed them in black, and conferred a sense of purpose. ISIS does the same but under zealous guidance. Cutting off heads to post on the Internet is gravy to satisfy the ugly adrenalin of a teen and twenty-something army given traction by its own gory celebrity. It’s less a movement than a moveable gang.
Long in coming, the now-unfolding Libyan collapse ironically fulfills Gadafi’s own dire warnings, and those of Saddam Hussein, who foresaw chaos in Iraq. Both warnings were dismissed at the time — in 2003 and 2011 — as pathetic acts of self-preservation. Après mois, le deluge, said Gadafi and Saddam in separate unison, suggesting West-“liberated” states would sooner or later but inevitably fall prey to a confluence of monsters resistant to Western taming and receptive to the kind of Muslim extremism that leverages the West’s dread of heathen bogeymen. That is precisely what happened, though the results are more immediately visible in unchecked Libya than in U.S.-monitored Iraq. They are results the Egyptian military foresaw and preemptively intervened to stop, reestablishing a hard-knocks style of domestic secularism Washington, Paris and London only pretend to dislike. Egypt holds the Africa line — to the point of bombing Libyan militants in response to increasingly ambitious, dare-you massacres.
Post-Gadafi Libya is an exaggerated version of Ethiopia after Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1970s ouster. Pro-Communist marauders took over and went on a five-year-long killing spree. But those were more contained and conventional days. The exporting of ideology was left to the hectoring Soviet Union. Little thought was given to forming cells and cabals to bring havoc to Western cities, something ISIS allegedly has up its sleeve in much the same way as Al Qaeda a decade ago.
Libya is now imagined as an extremist jump-off point, borrowing wholesale from the Berber push into Spain a thousand years ago. The problem with these scenarios is their monolithic approach. Guerilla gangs are configured into armies at the conquering ready. The image suits the paranoia market on which the linked-in West has depended for disquiet since September 11.
But ISIS, like Al Qaeda, is a fad. It’s a rumbling to suit the spirit of the aftermath of the latest flawed spring. It grows fat on Western fears, emboldened by the impossible goals its enemies sensationalize, thus squaring a perfectly vicious propaganda circle. The more cruelly ISIS behaves, the more attention it gets, pushing populations toward medieval voyeurism.
Le deluge, Gadafi crowed, would much worse than any repression he’d concocted, because no one could control it. He had a book, his, and he played by it. Others would have a separate book, and a far more potent one, and apply its scriptures expediently. Detto, fatto, say the Italians, or, “Said and done.”
Give the little tyrants their due. They were cruel but not stupid. They sensed what might lie ahead. Which is what they existed in part to control.