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A bitter choice between tyranny and colonialism

January 24, 2014 at 3:45 pm

After forty years of absolute rule during which he spent billions of dollars to boost his image in the world, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi finds himself without friends. Despite dozens of lengthy television interviews and the distribution of millions of copies of his “Green Book” in every conceivable language, he has been abandoned, even by his closest aides who have opted to abandon the sinking ship.

I have not read a single article in any newspaper, Arab or otherwise, where Gaddafi is written about in a positive way or any of his achievements are listed. It is unreasonable, in one sense, for it to appear that he has not accomplished even one small thing, but the main discussion, overwhelmingly so, is now about his dictatorship, the repression of his people and the corruption of his family and inner circle. Perhaps the Libyan leader or one of his aides could provide a definitive answer to explain the reasons for this ingratitude, especially from those who until very recently were in receipt of his largesse or promoting the virtues of the Green Book and other cultural and political events.

Saddam Hussein was no democrat and his regime ignored human rights laws; his forces invaded and occupied another country; and he fought with another neighbouring country for more than eight years. But there are some who said good words in his favour and we saw tens of millions of Arabs demonstrating in the streets in solidarity with him in the face of US and Israeli conspiracies. Muammar Gaddafi is facing a popular revolution which wants to topple his regime; it has turned into a military uprising which the West is preparing to support, one way or another. Will, I wonder, such Western intervention, if it does occur, lead to a change in Gaddafi’s image in the minds of his people and the Arab street? What is certain is that the Libyan leader wants this to happen and he is betting on it. He uses the threat of “Al-Qaeda”, and sometimes Western colonialism and even plays the “chaos” card to show how the fall of his regime will lead to instability in the region. This may even affect Israel.

I do not think that Gaddafi will find much sympathy in the Arab world but low-level support from the Arab public cannot be ruled out in the event of Western military intervention. When they have a choice between home-grown tyranny and Western colonialism, many Arabs would opt for the former. Painful experience with foreign occupations stained by the blood of millions of victims, including the million killed in Iraq, forge the complex reasons for such a preference.

The race towards Western military intervention in Libya has speeded up following the loss of “liberated” cities to troops loyal to Gaddafi. Regaining control over these cities has given self-confidence back to the Libyan leader’s forces, which was dented in the early days of the revolution.

According to NATO’s Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, many warships are heading to the Mediterranean to monitor Libya’s coast and impose a naval blockade to stop the Gaddafi regime from replenishing its weapons stocks. One US aircraft carrier is already in the area and a second one is on the way. Rasmussen highlighted three requirements before military action could be taken against the Libyan regime:

1. The existence of a great need requiring such action, such as the defeat of the opposition or Gaddafi’s forces massacring civilians.
2. There being a clear legal basis such as a decision by the UN Security Council supporting military intervention.
3. Strong regional support, of the Arab countries in particular.

The opposition in Libya is not defeated and still controls several areas of the country, especially in the east, and government aircraft have not bombed civilians yet. What is happening in Libya is not a peaceful revolution, as was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, or in Bahrain and Yemen; it is now a war between the forces of an oppressive regime and a rebel movement fighting alongside army units which have defected to its cause.

A UN Security Council resolution for intervention would be difficult to obtain because Russia and China may well use their veto; in any case, the current non-permanent members of the Council include India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon, all of whom would register objections. The Gulf Cooperation Council is meeting in Riyadh and would support military action against Gaddafi; the GCC will seek to get a resolution through the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to support the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

However, the Arab League may face a serious split on this issue. The foreign ministers of Algeria, Syria, Sudan and possibly Egypt will almost certainly oppose any international intervention in the Libyan crisis, so we may see two camps at the summit: the pro-no fly zone camp led by the GCC and Jordan, against the anti- group of Algeria, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon, and possibly Iraq.

We are witnessing the start of what could be a long war and a popular revolution that risks being hijacked. The swift Western recognition of the Libyan Transition National Council and the forthcoming visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Benghazi to meet with Libyan opposition groups, combined with meetings in Washington and Europe could hurt this revolution more than benefit it.

Gaddafi is not naive and he is very different to the ex-Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in his determination to cling to power, so he will not give up without a fight. Western intervention, backed by some Arab countries, could abort the spring of democracy in the Arab world, used by other Arab leaders citing the Libyan situation as a bogey and warning to their people. It is reasonable to assume that many people want neither Arab tyranny nor Western colonialism, but they probably won’t be allowed to have any choice in the matter.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.