Five Implications of the Unrest in Libya

Published: February 28, 2011

How will the ongoing conflicts shape the future of Libya and what will it mean for the country’s neighbours, their allies, and the West?

This Could Spell Disaster for the Rest of Africa.

Bonny Ibhawoh
Professor of African and Global History, Centre for Peace Studies.

More than any of the other uprisings sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, the one unfolding in Libya holds the gravest consequences for the region.

Libya is in the grasp of a more virulent autocracy – even by Middle Eastern standards. Moammar Gadhafi has made it clear that Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt, and that he will fight to the last man to maintain power. Given his antecedents, this comes as no surprise. Gadhafi would rather bring his country down with him than leave quietly. To make matters worse, no country in the region or the West has the kind of influence over Gadhafi that the U.S. had over Mubarak’s Egypt, or that the Europeans had over Ben Ali’s Tunisia. In dealing with Gadhafi, the international community’s options are much more limited. The unfortunate result is that – as is already becoming apparent – the Libyan uprising will be nothing like the relatively peaceful regime changes we have seen elsewhere.

The situation in Libya is also more precarious because of the damage that it threatens to unleash beyond the country’s shores. Already, EU leaders have begun scrambling to prepare for what the Italian foreign minister has described as “an exodus of biblical proportions.” There are also concerns about the implications for the global economy – particularly regarding the price of oil, which has seen a major spike since the crisis began.

But an even more disturbing concern – which has received very little attention in the media – is the impact that the Libyan crisis could have on the rest of Africa. During his 40 years in power, Gadhafi has thrown his influence and money across the continent to prop up or bring down governments. He has done this more than any other African leader. His fingerprints can be found on armed conflict from Chad to Sudan to the Central African Republic. He has also cultivated a loyal band of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa that he now uses to terrorize his own people.

But apparently his influence reaches even farther than this. The African Union’s response to the crisis has been feeble and belated. The union’s Peace and Security Council made a statement condemning the Libyan government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, but this statement was much weaker than the reaction from the EU and even from the Arab League, which took the additional step of suspending Libya.

If Gadhafi remains intransigent and the crisis in Libya spirals into war, the fallout will not only be the upsurge in the price of oil and the masses of people fleeing towards the shores of Europe; it will also be the political instability and conflict that is likely to engulf fragile African states in which Gadhafi has been pulling the strings for so long.

Moammar Ghadafi Timeline: What got us from there to here?

Does the UN Have a Responsibility to Protect the Libyan People?

Daniel Pipes
Director, Middle East Forum.

Presumably, if outside forces did get involved, it would be to stifle the government’s ability to attack the population. It’s unlikely that they would get involved in deciding who should take over and what the future leadership should look like. The latter is not a good idea.

In fact, I’m not someone who expects anything from the UN. Something serious like this should be a NATO project. To me, the UN is fundamentally illegitimate, because it’s made up of authoritarian states, or dictatorships. What right do they have to make decisions of this sort?

But putting that aside, I do think the UN’s intervention would be quite a radical step. I cannot think of other situations where there has been outside intervention in a situation of this sort. I’m not against it, but it is a major step. And it would be pretty easy for the UN to get involved in the situation in Libya, given how close it is to Europe, its small population, its geographic size, and the relative flatness of its land.

But would this set a precedent? Would it mean that international forces all over the world would intervene when governments attack their own populations? This is something that needs to be thought through carefully, because one wants to be consistent. One doesn’t want to just do it where it’s convenient.

A Better Constitution.

Amal Ghazal
Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern History, Dalhousie University.

There is much discussion now about the role of the tribes in a post-Gadhafi Libya. It is very clear that the tribal structure in Libya is not only dominant but also detrimental to the future of Libya. However, it would be a big mistake to analyze Libya’s politics and future through the tribal lens only and to think that Libyan societies cannot build a viable state based on a citizenship that transcends tribal affiliations. Surely, tribal affiliations will always remain important in Libya. But before the Gadhafi era, Libyans experimented with nation-building. It should be noted that Tripolitania was the first independent state in the Arab world, and its independence lasted for three years before it was overrun by the Italians. This highlights the historical roots of state-building in Libya, which precede the country’s 1951 declaration of independence (at which time the country became a federal monarchy comprised of three provinces).

The tribal element, however, has risen to more prominence since Gadhafi’s rule began. Over the last four decades, Gadhafi’s rule has completely neutralized, if not destroyed, state and civil society institutions. The tribal structure has had to replace those absent institutions, and has also had to function as some sort of a civil-society body catering to the needs of Libyans. But this does not mean that the tribal identity is the only one Libyans subscribe to, or that it comes at the expense of a national identity. If all of Libya is liberated from the rule of Gadhafi’s regime, we will see Libyans rebuilding a nation rather than retreating to tribal enclaves. We are already hearing them express such a desire across the airwaves.

The Rise of Democracy in the Arab World

Next Page: The role of western governments, and the need for peace.

Have Western Democracies been Propping up Dictatorships?

Wayne Cox
Professor, International Relations and Middle Eastern Politics, Queen’s University.

Ever since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began last month, it has been interesting to see just how many western governments have been wearing egg on their faces. It has been sadly comical to see western leaders (and their cadres of media pundits, spin doctors, and so-called experts) step up to the podium and awkwardly declare their support of protesters. Their actions have made it seem as though bravely challenging brutal regimes and transitioning to democracy are the same thing.

Many of these experts have suggested that recent events stand as a warning to authoritarian regimes everywhere (and the Middle East in particular) that unless things change, they are “on notice.” Perhaps what is most disingenuous about such a discourse is that it fails to mention something that most people from the Middle East have known all along – that they have been victims of these brutal regimes at least in part due to the West’s support of these governments.

As Libya degenerates into a bloody civil unrest that threatens to envelop other parts of North Africa, the extent to which western governments have supported the Gadhafi regime is revealed. Anyone who bothered to pay even limited attention to Middle Eastern politics should have been under no illusions about the potential for brutality from the likes of Mubarak and Gadhafi (among others). And yet, western leaders preferred to ignore this potentiality, and continued to conduct their foreign policies based purely upon self-interest.

Stephen Harper courted favour with Moroccan leaders in January, despite the fact that Moroccan citizens were setting themselves alight in anti-government protests. While hundreds have died in Egyptian and Lebanese protests, the U.S. government has continued to send billions of dollars in military aid to the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And, finally, despite the bloodbath that appears to be happening in North Africa, UK Prime Minister David Cameron pushes on in an arms sales jaunt to Kuwait.

I wonder if media experts will ever reconsider their “on notice” warning to brutal regimes and extend it to western governments who have played a key role in keeping such regimes in place. Perhaps it is high time that our own democratic citizenry paid closer attention to the ethical and human consequences of western government policies in the Middle East.

Egypt Timeline: What Got Us Here?

Should the World’s Dictators be Worried?

Stephen Zunes
Chair, Middle Eastern Studies, San Francisco’s School of International Studies.

Dictators are already worried to some degree. We have seen more than 70 countries go from dictatorship to some form of democracy in the past 30 years, and at least three quarters did so primarily through strategic non-violent action, through democratic civil society movements. We’re certainly seeing it in the Middle East right now in kind of a wave. It’s something of a contagion effect, as we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 with the downfall of the communist regimes there, and in the 1980s in South America with the downfall of dictatorships in that part of the world.
It seems that people are feeling increasingly empowered in the region. They see that they can’t make change through the system, and that there are some serious drawbacks to armed struggle, so the alternative becomes this massive, non-violent resistance.

These more democratic Middle Eastern countries will be somewhat more nationalistic; they will look out for what they see as their people’s interests first. So they may be less likely to work as closely with the United States as Mubarak and some of the other friendly dictators did. They may also be less willing to give in to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); but at the same time, I don’t see them flipping to a stridently anti-western sentiment, and I certainly don’t see them supporting extremism and terrorism. In fact, the more democratic the Middle East is, the less prone it will be to support extremist ideologies and terrorism.

The non-violent, secular revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia strike a real blow to al Qaeda, who have long suggested that terrorism and a reactionary form of Islam are necessary to overthrow western-backed middle east dictators. It will be much harder for them now to make the case that violence is the only way to create change.

Moammar Ghadafi Timeline: What got us from there to here?