Arab Spring

Written by Semu Bhatt  •  May 2011 PDF Print E-mail

With the Arab Spring hitting Tunisia, a remarkable chapter in world history began to unfold as the revolutionary upsurge began to spread across many countries in the Middle East. The Libyan conflict has heated things further. The oil rich Arab world speaks of some of the worst political freedom records in the world and has long been subjected to geopolitical games to safeguard energy resources of the developed world. It was due to this that the humanitarian intervention in Libya was viewed through the prism of suspicion.

Libya is neither as geopolitically important as other countries experiencing uprisings in the region (like Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain) nor does it boast of having much influence over the greater Arab world. Its oil deposits are not as vital as those of Iraq or Saudi Arabia, although some of the European nations do have strong interests in the Libyan reserves. The terrorism and nuclear track record of the country has bettered in the past. The possibility of Gaddafi exploiting the political vacuum in Egypt and Tunisia is real, but intervention does not make it impossible. The humanitarian crisis, although severe, is not as worse as in many other countries in Africa. So then, why Libya?

The clear and present danger of mass murders causing an almost unanimous abhorrence of Muammar Gaddafi, and the favorable popular opinion in the Arab world in the wake of revolutionary fervor – made for a perfect case for humanitarian intervention. Of course, the parties to the intervention did not come completely for altruistic reasons. While on the one hand, the military intervention in Libya was an opportunity for the West to uphold the moral principles of freedom, justice and democracy, on the other, it was an opening to get involved in the Arab upheaval and try to shape the post-revolt Middle East in a fashion that protects Western interests. It was also a chance to underline the U.S. military and economic might – having committed armed forces for Libya despite heavy military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the current economic downturn – and to send a strong signal to Iran to avoid indulging in any misadventure. The initial reluctance and later insistence on playing a supporting role, signified a multilateralist shift in the Washington's foreign policy. At the same time, seeming leadership confusion in the coalition reinforced the U.S. position at the top in the world order.
However, home is where the U.S. administration faces challenges. Having ventured into the Operation Odyssey Dawn without public debate and questionable legal basis and inability to provide definite answers as to the length and cost of involvement – the U.S. government will find it difficult to convince the recession-struck population about this additional strain of over $500 million on the exchequer as of March end. People, not informed about the nation's stake in the outcome of the Arab Spring, have no inclination for more wars. Even political supporters balk at the prospect. On April 14, 2011, a joint declaration by the leaders of the U.S., UK and France stated that it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi still in power – thereby, implicitly putting their collective political will behind ousting the Libyan despot. Explicitly though, they maintain that no force will be used to remove him.

Media in the region has been largely viewing the strikes through the prism of their respective country's situation. The Egyptian and Qatari opinion makers blame Gaddafi for the attacks, with the former supporting democracy in Libya and secretly supplying rebels with arms, and later deploying its combat aircraft in the mission. In Bahrain, where the popular revolt was recently crushed, people decry the dichotomy in the functioning of the international community.  Although little concrete help has come from their governments, there indeed is widespread Arab support for stopping Gadaffi's "murderous madness."

Sadly, the Libyan conflict seems to be deadlocked. Gaddafi has no option but to fight it out unless he is assured of a safe passage out of Libya and reprieve from the International Criminal Court.  The rebels have so far shown little signs of coalescing into a fighting force that can take on a professional military. The U.S. has made it clear that it would not land any ground forces. The Arab League abhors any intervention beyond maintaining a no-fly zone over Libya. If it goes on like this, a civil war will set in – which will make rebels dependent on the coalition forces for support and consequently becoming puppets in the western hands. If the Arab nations sense western occupational or oil motives in Libya, the support for the coalition action will evaporate in no time.
Even if the Gaddafi regime falls, there is no surety that the rebels will be able to provide for a strong alternative government, as they are a very diverse group of people bound together only by their opposition to Gaddafi. Also, let us not forget that many leaders of the Libyan Transitional National Council are ex-ministers of Gaddafi and may turn out to be as brutal as him.

The history and geography of Libya also raises fear of it becoming a jihadist bastion in case of anarchy. After all, these very Eastern towns of Libya were considered as safe havens for Al Qaeda members and Libyan arms have found their way to terrorists in past. The U.S. would be wary of creating another Al Qaeda in Libya. Gaddafi too can resort to his old tactics of using terrorist strikes to avenge attacks on his military.

Given that this impasse can put the entire region in turmoil, it makes sense to call for a political solution and immediate ceasefire – something that the Arab League, United Nations, European Union, African Union and the Organization of Islamic Conference have recently advocated. The BRIC nations have condemned the air strikes and the Arab League Secretary General has said, "What we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians." In fact, the trigger happy coalition forces should have initially exercised the option of sanctions and negotiations in order to prevent the civilian massacre, instead of launching a military attack.
Beginning with Tunisia, the New Year has witnessed widespread rising against the rulers in the Arab world. The "slacktivists", who spread the messages through social networking sites and the activists who come on the streets and chant slogans – are asking for the removal of repressive regimes. The Internet and satellite channels have emerged as extremely important tools for the revolutionaries in organizing the protests and spreading the uprisings.  A region whose two-thirds population is under 25, it's the youth that is voicing displeasure at decades of silent subjugation. However, organizing a nation is not just as easy as organizing a protest through Facebook. The international community can play a huge role by helping with capacity building of the civil society and institutions. The Arab Spring has the potential to bring about positive transformation and empowerment of the region, if the people's aspirations are not compromised for geopolitical obligations.  

Semu Bhatt is a Mumbai-based independent political analyst specializing in security and governance issues. She is co-author of Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan and Cost of Conflict in Sri Lanka.

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