A reader sent an email asking about the politics of decentralization and administrative problems in Kabylia and who these things influence the Berber identity movement. The response involved some discussion of hogra — contempt from officials, the police and the bureaucracy. That whole attitude that We, this narrow set of technocrats, officers and elderly men, know best and letting the half-educated masses have at these Very Important Problems would lead to sheer collapse. The We built the nation and we can fix the nation or These children don’t know what’s best for them attitudes one sees among many many older official Algerians. And it gets mixed up and passed through with all the other tendencies one finds in Franco-Arab bureaucracies. And it occurs within elites, too, as the competing versions of the meeting before the resignation of Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid in 1992, between General Khaled Nezzar and the President. Some say Chadli, who is often thought of as dimwitted, was “convinced” to step down after a long discussion by Nezzar. Another more dramatic version says the General came to blows with the President (himself an Army colonel), with the idea here being that Chadli had a scheme to use the upcoming election to bolster his own position by empowering the FLN and weakening the military, choking him against a wall til he agreed to go along with the coup, “for the good of the country.”
Virtually every polity suffers from some kind of hogra. It can help create the sort of response to mass discontent one saw in Libya, the paranoid overreaction (remember how franticly Qadhafi was preaching against the uprising in Tunisia, even before there were any signs of similar instability in Libya — Quick, make sure the barbarians know their place!). This anecdote speaks to the serious atmosphere of violent paranoia and arrogance that ran through the Qadhafite regime. This blogger heard a version of this story around the same time El-Amrani did.
The sponsor, whom I’ll call Saeed, used his proximity to Qadhafi to cut through red tape, help get contracts, expedite customs issues and more. He was not a politically powerful person in the Libyan government, but his personal friendship with Qadhafi and record in the regime provided him enough clout to get business done.
One day in February, just has the February 17 movement was getting started in Benghazi, Saeed decided to go visit Qadhafi. The official pretext was that his son had recently gotten married, and he wanted to introduce him and his new wife to the Leader in person. The three went to one of Qadhafi’s house, received his blessing for the marriage, and stayed to have a talk. Khamis was there too, as other members of his father’s entourage.
Saeed, because he had known Qadhafi back in the days of the Free Officers, broached the topic of the Arab uprisings and the trouble brewing in Benghazi. He began to give his opinion that, the regional environment being what it is, the regime should be cautious about repressing what were still relatively minor protests in Benghazi. Instead, he argued, it should engage the protestors and be cautious about the potential for the movement to get much bigger, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt so recently.
This enraged Khamis. He stood up and shouted at Saeed, accusing him of being a traitor and a weakling, and said his father would never have to give in to the vermin in Benghazi. Saeed respectfully stated he was just giving his advice, in light of what was happening elsewhere in the Arab world — just being cautious. But this only further incensed Khamis (who may have been on some kind of drugs), and the argument kept escalating.
Finally, Khamis lost it. He pulled out his sidearm and shot Saeed, killing him instantly. Saeed’s son jumped towards his father, and the son’s wife wailed. Khamis turned out and emptied his gun into them, killing them both. All of this right in front of his father and his entourage.
There is nothing really funny about any of this as it is lived. Hogra and brittle violence causes real corruption, real hardship and real pain for everyday people. The Qadhafis played the act of fools before the world, with all the cunning that comes from a regime whose patriarch plotted and executed a coup d’etat at barely 27 years. But the uprisings and civil wars that became catastrophes for Arab regimes often came because Arab leaders overreacted or too brutishly to popular demands that could have been handled by means other than mass police brutality, live ammunition, tanks and torturing little boys. All these things were in the literal and figurative sense revolting. And these dictators and their sons and deputies seemed to believe that showing a willingness to use extreme violence against dissent would set things in order — if they kept it real these “rats” would just bugger off and be shocked into in submission. Instead, it wrecked their regimes, creating museums for their shortcomings and inviting citizens to tear them down and for everyone else to cheer them on. These were text book examples of “When Keepin’ It Real Goes Wrong”. Men like Mubarak and Qadhafi and Ben Ali had choices when it came to managing unrest. For myriad reasons, poor training, false perceptions and ignorance, these men got “the most spectacular ass-whoopings ever witnessed” by Arab leaders at the hands of their own people. Some of them fled to exile or will go on trial. As the Chappelles Show once wisely pointed out: “When keeping it real, always be wary of those keepin’ it realer.” Arab leaders are learning: the Arab peoples and minorities are more than willing to “keep it realer”.