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Eye of today’s storm

/ 10:41 PM October 24, 2011

“Two Filipina nurses filed in to take pictures,” noted a Reuters dispatch on crowds lining up to peek at the corpses of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his son Mutassim. “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.”

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“We wanted to know if it was true or not,” Senussi explained.

United Nations and the Nato coalition also want to know if Gadhafi and son were summarily executed. There is grainy footage showing both were captured alive, after Nato jets whacked their 75-car convoy sprinting from embattled Sirte. Their corpses turned up an hour later.

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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.”

For now, the issue has been shoved to back burners. In Tripoli, the National Transitional Council is sketching out a timetable for new elections. Libyans also celebrated in their usual way—by firing guns. But this time, they pointed the artillery seawards. And some thrust flowers into AK-47 barrels.

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

Sunday provided, meanwhile, a coincidental but striking counterpoint. Over 70 percent of 3.8 million Tunisian electors voted in the first free election of the “Arab Spring.” The poll came nine months after the “Jasmine Revolt” ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his ostentatious wife (lampooned as the “Imelda Marcos of North Africa” by Times of India).

By Tuesday, we should know the 217 delegates to a Constituent Assembly that would 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’s incendiary in a region where women are not even allowed to drive, as in Saudi Arabia.

Those two Filipina nurses, in Misrata’s funeral queue, were among over 1,800 Filipinos who didn’t show up for August’s mandatory evacuation. Egypt, China, India and other countries yanked out their nationals after Gadhafi 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 the conflict was over.”

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There were over 23,713 Filipinos in Libya then—up from 7,913 in 2006. Among them  were doctors, professors, computer engineers to construction workers. Some were undocumented or “TNT” (tago ng tago): 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 the University of Misrata. Both  taught English. “Your contracts are void, if you leave,” they were told.

So, they stayed—until the revolt shut down the university in February. By then, over a thousand people had been 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 at Hawari hospital, doing various jobs. That included teaching English to nurses.

“It was not easy. They had not been  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.

Gadhafi’s death spurred inquiries at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) from Filipinos chafing to get jobs in Libya. No one knows how long it will take for Libya to normalize. To prevent reckless stampedes, the President may have to use his +44 percent support from OFWs, shown in the latest SWS survey.

Libya is only one country in a vast region where the next unpredictable chapter of the “Arab Spring” is now unfolding. Gadhafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali were in power collectively for 95 years. Now, they’re in history’s dustbin.

“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 spurs 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 million of the 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.

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Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: conflict, Libya, Moammar Gadhafi
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