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>> The International Herald Tribune


ELEGANT COLONIALISM

The International Herald Tribune - September 9, 2008 by Rami G. Khouri The agreement signed Aug. 30, which sees Italy apologize and pay $5 billion in compensation for its colonial rule and misdeeds in Libya, is a powerful example of why it is so important to acknowledge that which many of our friends in the West constantly tell us to put behind us: history. History matters, and endures, and its consequences constantly must be grasped, not ignored. In this case, we witness neither the end nor the resumption of history, but the neutralization of one aspect of history as a fractious force of resentment and discord. History for many in the West - especially the history of West's colonialism and imperialism in Asia, the Middle East and Africa - is something to skim through in a high school class, and then to relegate to the past as irrelevant to today's conflicts and tensions. For many people in the former colonized world, however, history is a deep and open wound that still oozes pain and distortion. Libya is a classic example of colonialism's twisted and enduring legacy of nearly dysfunctional states governed by corrupt and often incompetent elites, whose people never have a chance to validate either the configuration of statehood or the exercise of power. History is very much an active force in much of the Middle East today. It manifests itself, for example, in the form of bitter memories of the West's behavior in the past (Iran, Palestine), and explains the lot of poor and fragmenting countries that have never made a coherent transition to stable statehood, legitimate sovereignty, or credible governance. A major reason for the mess and mediocrity that define so many Arab-Asian-African countries is their unnatural birth at the hands of retreating European colonial midwives. Because they were manufactured by fleeing European occupiers, many countries in our region have enjoyed neither the logic of a sensible balance among natural and human resources, nor the compensatory vitality that comes from self-determinant and truly sovereign states. Made in Europe cars and shoes are wonderful; made in Europe Arab states are unnatural and embarrassing. The Arab world remains ignominiously the world's only collectively, structurally and chronically undemocratic region in large part because it experienced an unnatural birth, and could be maintained in its current format only through the pacifying force of hard security states. Not surprisingly, the former European colonial powers continue to sustain and benefit from the bizarre Arab order of turbulent, often violent, and sometimes vicious, statehood that they left behind when they fled our shores. The Italian-Libyan agreement is fascinating for what it reveals about a belated acknowledgment in at least one European country - always elegant Italy - that colonialism damaged and retarded the native land and its people. This is a noteworthy and noble act, for which the Italians and their government are to be congratulated. It takes courage and humility to undertake such an agreement, admitting, as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy did, "complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era." He continued: "In the name of the Italian people ... I feel the duty to apologize and show our pain for what happened many years ago and which affected many of your families." Among the things Italy regrets were its killing thousands of Libyans and uprooting thousands of others from their homes. Italy will spend $5 billion to help compensate for its historical misdeeds, in the form of $200 million of investments per year in Libya over 25 years, including building a highway across Libya from the Tunisian border to Egypt. Italy will also clear land mines dating back to the colonial era, and has already returned an ancient statue of Venus stolen during colonial rule. While Italy should be commended for this acknowledgment and apology, at the same time troubling dimensions to this agreement deserve wider scrutiny. In return for its gesture, Italy expects to reap great rewards, in the form of multi-billion dollar contracts, and tighter security controls over flows of illegal immigrants. And so Italy expects to continue enjoying benefits from an unequal historical association with the land and people it once directly colonized. Equally troubling, such agreements help to maintain in power leaders like Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, who next year celebrates 40 years in power. There is very little to show for his leadership, other than a legacy of intensely erratic and wasteful governance matched only by its longevity. If there were a prize for modern Arab mismanaged statehood and squandered wealth, Libya would win it hands down, with close competition from countries like Algeria, Sudan and Iraq. Yet the West continues to manipulate, reward and protect these hapless societies. And it seems quite obvious to many of us in the Middle East, that this is only a new and disguised form of colonialism. For ordinary Arab people, the endless pain of an unsatisfying relationship with European colonial powers endures, in new and more elegant forms. Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Distributed by Agence Global





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