Eye Of Today’s Storm

by Juan L. Mercado

“Two Filipina nurses filed in to take pictures,”  noted a Reuters dispatch on crowds lining up to peek at corpses of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his son ‘Mo’tassim. “Because of the stench of rotting flesh, guards handed out green surgical masks.”  

Ahead of the  Filipinas in the queue was Abdullah al-Senussi, with flowing white beard. He “was so frail he had to be supported by people on either side”.  As he shuffled  forward, Senussi explained: “We wanted to know if it was true or not.”

United Nations and NATO coalition members also want to know if Gaddafi and son were summarily executed. There is footage, albeit grainy, showing  both were captured alive,  after NATO jets whacked their 75-car convoy barreling away from  embattled Sirte. Their corpses turned up an hour after they were seized.

These  killings could sear “hopes for a new Libya, based on rights, not revenge”,  BBC’s Jeremy Bowen noted.  These could  be “the original sin they may come to regret. They need to get the fundamentals right from the very start.”  

But for now, the issue has been shoved to backburners.  In Tripoli, the National Transitional Council is sketching out a  timetable for new  elections Libyans also  celebrated  their usual way — by firing guns. But this time, they pointed the artillery seawards and some thrust flowers into gun barrels.

That image hits recall buttons of EDSA for Filipinos. Demonstrators handed flowers to troopers, then edging  to get within range of rebels, hunkered down in Camps Aguinaldo and Crame.  Corazon Aquno’s regime prioritized restoring constitutional government.

Sunday also provided a coincidental but striking counterpoint. Tunisians voted in the  first free election of the “Arab Spring.” The poll came nine months after the “Jasmine Revolt” ousted  Zinedine el Abidine Ben Ali and ostentatious wife (lampooned as “Imelda Marcos of North Africa” by Times of India).

By Tuesday, we should know today how  3.8 milllion Tunisians picked  217 delegates  to a Constituent Assembly that’d  name a  prime minister and draft a charter. Will the Assembly , as forecast,  house the largest number of  women delegates ever in the Arab world?  That is incendiary to a region where women are even not allowed to drive, as in Saudi Arabia.

The two Filipina nurses, in that Misrata funeral queue, were among over 1,800 Filipinos who didn’t show up for August’s  mandatory evacuation from Libya.  Egypt, China, India and other countries  yanked out their nationals, after Ghadaffi  skittered from Tripoli.   Libya used to hire  1.5 million foreign workers.

“Not all (Filipinos) left. Some were unable to go,” wrote Michel Cousins in Arab News. “Others stayed on, either because they wanted to help or because there might be difficulties returning to Libya after conflict was over.

There were over 25,000 Filipinos in Libya then — up from 7,913 in 2006. Among them  were doctors, professors, computer engineers to construction workers. Some were “TNT” or undocumented laborers.  Men outnumbered women by roughly two-to-one.

Most clustered  in Tripoli and Benghazi.  Almahdi Alonto from Mindanao and Regilito Laurel from Manila were among  15 Filipino academics at University of Misrata. Both taught English.   Your contracts are void, if you leave, they were told.

So, they stayed  put  — until the uprising  shut down the university in February. By then,over a thousand people were killed and 3,000 injured, just in Misrata.  The 15 Filipino academics left.

“Laurel sold everything he had,”  Arab News adds.  “Others simply walked out of their homes, not knowing if they’d ever return ”.  They caught a boat for Benghazi’s refugee camp.  As volunteers, they  worked pro bono at Hawari hospital, doing various jobs including teaching English to nurses.

“It was not easy. They were not paid since April,” although some subsistence funds seeped down from the National Transitional Council. Despite the destruction and deaths, The new government  will reopen universities, probably sooner rather than later. “Libya will continue to need Filipinos for the foreseeable future, especially teachers, nurses and engineers”,  Laurel and Alonto say.

Ghadaffi’s death has spurred enquires at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) from Filipinos chafing to get jobs in Libya. Careful, cautions Migrante regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona. It will take time to normalize. And recruitment sharks can, meanwhile, victimize many.

Libya is only one country in a vast region where the next  unpredictable chapter of the “Arab Spring” is now unfolding. Gadhaffi, Mubarak, Ben Ali are in history’s dustbin. That means that three rulers in power collectively for 95 years are gone.

“Kings Abdullah of Jordan and Mohammed of Morocco are  trying to stay ahead of the curve of protest,” CNN notes.  The 85-year old crown prince of  Saudi  Arabia has died.  Geriatrics is spurring transition of power  there.

Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen cling to power by simply killing more of their people. That is a deadend.

“2011 is to the Arabs what 1989 was to the communist world,” writes Hoover Institution senior fellow Fouad Ajami.  “The Arabs are now coming into ownership of their own history and we have to celebrate.”

Two of 10 million Filipino OFWs are in the Middle East. Their lives, and the future of their families back home, twist  with the changes upending the sclerotic leadership of the Arab world. Libya was yesterday.  Syria and Yemen form the eye of today’s storm.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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