Headless horsemen and headless revolutions


The Legend of Headless Horse man is a tale meant to frighten children and the timid who might venture out into the night on Halloween.  The headless horseman of Washington Irving is not the only headless horseman in our legends.  There was another headless horseman in Texas in the 1850s, he was bent on frontier justice and bringing terror to anyone who saw him.  The headless tradition is much older than either of the American versions, and probably begins in Europe in the Middle Ages – the headless rider is most often a soldier who died in battle, but never gives up the cause, riding in the night he fights on and on, striking terror in the hearts of his enemies.

The legends make great stories, but there are other examples of headlessness that make for disasters and not good literature. Across North Africa the headless revolutions are riding straight into a trap; in Egypt, Tunisia and, even by a small stretch of the imagination Libya,  revolutions were made by mostly young, but always enthusiastic and naive citizens who wanted only a better life and relieve from political oppression. They had no grand plan and certainly no great leader – they were indeed headless revolutions.

Modern states cannot be governed without governors – and that means the parties who are best organized and have the most powerful leaders in North Africa are beginning to step into the void.  And for the moment that means Islamic parties – all of the other secular parties were long ago suppressed and destroyed.  In Tahrir Square, in Libya and in Tunisia the Islamic parties are stepping forward.  We should not be surprised to see some form of Islamic government surface in all three countries.

The Muslim Brotherhood is proving to be the best organized by far in Egypt.  It has a very broad base of support and one step at a time the Brotherhood is moving forward – with elections in a couple of weeks, we can expect a very strong showing.  In Libya the Brotherhood is holding its first congress in 25 years and  preparing to reenter the political arena.  In Tunisia an Islamic party, Ennahda,  got the most votes in the recent election and has just formed a coalition government with two other parties, both secular.

However, organized political movements is not the only place religious parties are making themselves felt; in Libya, Islamists broke into a mosque and moved some bodies.

“These bodies have been moved to a Muslim cemetery,” announced graffiti on the walls, explaining the disapproval by some Islamists of the Sufi Muslim tradition of burying scholars and teachers in mosques to honor them. Asharq Al-Awsat, 11-18-11

Others disturbed a fashion show and sent everyone scurry.

“I was scared; I wiped off my makeup and went home,” said Jasmin Abdul Aziz, a 22-year-old student who was one of five models at the event and once paraded a $5,000 dress studded with diamonds in a Gaddafi-era fashion show. “Before, we would wear shorts in the streets. Now, look around you, nobody does.” Asharq Al-Awsat, 11-18-11

We in the west are like those naive demonstrators last spring – we all believed that change could be brought about by the people speaking their mind.  Change did occur, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali are gone, but  the change in not proving to be what the demonstrators wanted.  Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will have new governments, but again, it is not what the girls in shorts or the young men who wanted more political and economic freedom expected.

In the legends the headless horseman gets his revenge and then disappears into the night; that appears to be the fate of the headless revolution, it brought down the hated leader, but now it is disappearing into the night and leaving the daylight to the army lead by a horseman with a head.

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