By Salman Haidar
THE revolt of Arab masses, who turned against oppressive regimes in quest of liberty, is an inspiring development that has drawn universal sympathy and admiration. Beginning in Tunisia and then spreading to Egypt, large crowds came out on the streets and sent their autocratic and repressive rulers packing. Elsewhere, too, in as many as six or seven other countries, the people are restive and defiant, showing their desire for a better deal, and bringing long established regimes under severe pressure. The rulers are being put to shifts to maintain themselves: some have offered financial inducements; more ominously, others have had resort to physical repression.
While the entire region is affected, the current focus is on Libya, where the movement of people’s power that overturned Tunisia and Egypt, neighbours to left and right, has been held up by the determined fightback of President Gaddafi. He has refused to bow, his armed forces remain loyal, and he has shown that he is prepared to use them against his opponents. The militarily much inferior opposition paid a heavy price in its confrontation with the well equipped pro-Gaddafi forces; indeed, the dissenters were in imminent danger of being crushed and were able to survive only through foreign intervention and support.
The external forces that changed the balance in Libya were able to operate by virtue of a resolution of the UN Security Council that called for action to protect the human rights of those opposed to the Gaddafi regime. The relevant UNSC resolution was not unanimous, for two permanent members, Russia and China, and two significant non-permanent members, India and Germany, felt it necessary to abstain. However, the majority vote in favour of the resolution was sufficient to permit NATO countries, including the USA, Britain and France, to intervene militarily, and attacks by their missiles and aircraft have halted the Gaddafi drive on the rebel stronghold in the eastern Cyrenaica province with its capital at Benghazi. The government’s forces have been forced to retreat though Col. Gaddafi is far from giving up the fight and threatens a prolonged campaign ahead. By contrast, the other side, having established dominance through a ‘no-fly zone’ above the battleground, claims that matters will be resolved soon. It is a fluid situation and neither side seems to be in control.
Nevertheless, for reasons not easy to discern, Col. Gaddafi has been able to defy the trend that has seen the toppling of regimes as seemingly well entrenched as the one he has led for so long. His personality has something to do with it, for he is quirky and unpredictable, and utterly unresponsive to the new voices and demands thrown up in the entire region by the internet networks. He seems unmoved by the severe media criticism he attracts, or even by the aerial destruction inflicted on his army by NATO’s forces. In some respects, the Gaddafi regime is no worse than several others that have fallen or are tottering, yet he is able to resist where others have had to go. Some experts on the region suggest this may have something to do with the tribal structure of the country that creates allegiances that are difficult to shake. According to one account, Col. Gaddafi’s tribe is Libya’s largest and most powerful, and provides him with solid support, come what may.
Other factors, too, have to be taken into account, chief among them being oil. Libya is a major oil supplier for Europe which has an obvious interest in maintaining undisturbed its sources of this vital commodity as well as its investments in this critical sector. Cyrenaica, where the revolt is centred, is an important oil producing area, which has encouraged the separatism that has surfaced from time to time in that province and could have some relevance to the current turmoil.
The UNSC has given its imprimatur to foreign intervention but the doubts that kept back India and others from endorsing such a course have only been strengthened by the intensity of the aerial attacks on Libya. Military forces are the target but civilian casualties have occurred. It is noteworthy that there have been murmurings among some early supporters of intervention, like the Arab League which endorsed the UNSC resolution when it was passed but whose Secretary-General, Mr Amr Moussa, has voiced skepticism about the action taken by NATO. Others have also reacted adversely to the sight of an Arab country being pounded by Western arms from invulnerable aerial platforms. Ironies abound: these are the same Western countries whose civilian airliners were destroyed with heavy loss of life through sabotage traced back to Col. Gaddafi’s Libya. After decades of estrangement, relations were restored only recently, and now the parties are at war. Nor can it be forgotten that not so long ago, Britain and France in collusion with Israel, were attacking Egypt and its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Suez war, which looked like the last fling of the colonialists ~ but they’re back! And this time the USA, formerly against, is with them. Of course, this is no revival of colonial intentions, even if it does bring back unhappy recollections. Military intervention on the present occasion is being undertaken in the name of protecting the human rights of the affected people, and certainly their rights must be protected by all appropriate means. But as the conflict continues, it does not seem so obvious that the means selected, i.e. aerial domination and the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’, can serve the intended purpose. Nor do all the parties seem equally committed: mindful, no doubt, of its own domestic opinion which seems sated with war abroad, US leaders have said that though their country will remain involved, they will leave it to Britain and France to take the lead. There are many skeptics of the current Western tactics who take the example of what happened in Iraq after the first Gulf War and conclude that aerial interdiction by itself will not suffice ~ some form of intervention on the ground may be unavoidable. But for obvious reasons, nobody has as yet said anything to promote such a notion. And then, where can the line be drawn: could the aim go beyond insistence on better protection for civilians into the murky area of regime change, for which consensus may be impossible to attain.
Nobody, it would seem, can tell where events may be leading. The flames keep spreading in the Arab world, in Libya the outcome remains very uncertain. Some accounts suggest that some important players are sitting on the fence, waiting to see how events shape. The military situation remains unclear, and while the uncertainties remain, one must fear further strife and bloodshed.
Source: The Statesman