The Libyan crisis: Matters arising – By Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

People making it across the border into Tunisian/UNHCR. A. Duclos
With the anti-Gadhafi protesters now fighting as REBELS, the dynamics of the uprising against Libya’s Muammar al-Gadhafi have changed for the worse. The sudden transformation of the protesters into heavily armed rebels engaged in fierce battles with pro-Gadhafi forces suggests that Libya is now in a state of war. What we have is the use of a violent means to achieve political objectives. Of course, no one expects the anti-Gadhafi forces to fold up their arms and be shot to death by the pro-government forces.

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Certainly, then, the Libyan crisis has now assumed extremely dangerous dimensions that should make us revise our knowledge of the country and its politics so as to fully comprehend the enormity of the problem and how to tackle it.

State of War

The crisis can no more be described as a peaceful civil protest aimed at overthrowing Gadhafi. Once weapons of all kinds have been introduced into the strategies to oust Gadhafi, the situation qualifies as an armed conflict, especially in Benghazi, Zawiya, Ras Lanuf, and other places where fierce fighting has been going on between the opponents of Gadhafi and the pro-government supporters. We now have a war situation involving rebels and government forces.

The change of terminology from “protesters” to “rebels” (even in international news media such as the BBC and CNN) to describe the anti-Gadhafi elements suggests that the uprising has reached a frighteningly dangerous level. Wherever rebel situations arise, there is death and destruction. The beneficiaries of such a circumstance are those who produce and sell the weapons to the combatants.

What is happening in Libya is more than a mere protest to oust the Gadhafi regime. It is a full-scale war and demands the implementation of all conventions regarding war situations. Rebel forces have reported gaining the upper hand in the fierce fight going on with the pro-government forces, and even showed news reporters the wreckage of a downed warplane near Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya.

The images that we see in the international media portray heavily armed anti-Gadhafi elements in battle-ready mood or in actual combat with pro-government forces. We’ve seen images of massive destruction of government infrastructure and artefacts representing Gadhafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Green Book) ideals. Such destructive acts amount to a declaration and prosecution of war, which has brought Libya to its knees even though oil production is still going on for the benefit of the very countries that are in the forefront loudly condemning Gadhafi.

Peculiarities of the Libyan Situation

We shouldn’t anymore compare the Libyan situation to others. The atmosphere there is not the same as what characterized the Tunisian and Egyptian protests nor does it measure up to similar uprisings in other areas of the Arab world (Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, etc.). In those countries, the protesters didn’t take matters into their own hands to arm themselves for a head-on military action against the Establishment. We haven’t seen as much destruction of government infrastructure by the protesters either. The protesters are using non-violent means through persistent positive defiance and massive gatherings as a show of force to press home their demands.
The success of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests can be attributed more to the heavy pressure coming from that non-violent approach than anything else, although the two leaders might be said to be not as power-drunk and autocratic as Gadhafi is portrayed to be.

Imposition of Sanctions on Gadhafi

Probably, Ben Ali and Mubarak hadn’t incurred so much disdain and anger from the West as Gadhafi has done to warrant his being declared an anathema and cornered through several punitive measures as the US, UN, EU, Britain, the Arab League, etc. have imposed on him. They didn’t impose such sanctions on Ben Ali and Mubarak (or even the Algerian President). Why pick on Gadhafi alone, then?

The speed and zeal with which the sanctions were imposed on Gadhafi seemed to suggest that he had long been earmarked and was just being monitored and anticipated to fall into the trap that had been set for him. Unmistakably, the mass protest that erupted in Tunisia and spread to Libya was the ideal signal to tempt his resolve. He fell for it and couldn’t avoid taking the route toward the trap. And once he grabbed the bait, the trap snapped shut on him. Gadhafi knows the reality and is resisting being turned into mincemeat. That is why he will expend all the resources of the country at his disposal to dig in to the end.

These punitive measures on their own may have their effects on him but they can’t solve the Libyan problem. The contemplations going on among NATO members to impose a no-fly zone over Libya will not solve the problem either because it has its own complications, which will mean a direct involvement by the West in efforts to eliminate the Gadhafi menace either by attacking his forces within the country or crippling the Libyan air defence system.

If any such drastic action is taken, the Libyan infrastructural network will be destroyed beyond repair. The cost to the country in any reconstruction effort in a post-Gadhafi era is unquantifiable. Certainly any such situation will be a blessing in disguise to the very West that would have caused the damage. After all, rebuilding Libya means more business for their companies—supplying materials and expatriates to put Libya back on its feet. Libya’s crude oil is enough collateral for any huge investment in rebuilding the country.

As the armed conflict persists and Gadhafi unleashes the full might of his arsenal on his opponents, the violence will not end soon. The likelihood that his opponents will seek foreign support to replenish their weaponry is high. If the West goes ahead to supply them with what they need to counteract the pro-Gadhafi forces, we will see an intensification of the conflict. The US has already given its intention to provide all forms of assistance needed by them to remove him from power. Sophisticated weapons can’t be ruled out of this package. After all, supplying weapons to those anti-Gadhafi elements means more business for the US’ military-industrial complex. With an arms embargo in place, Gadhafi is not likely to look up to the West to replenish his stock soon. Presumably, he must have stockpiled enough arsenal for conflicts of this sort and will dig in until doomsday.

The concerted manner in which the US, UN, the Arab League, and the EU have imposed sanctions on Gadhafi suggests something quite inexplicable. Obviously, the killing of the protesters at the outset of the uprising raised very serious humanitarian concerns and needed to be reacted to vigorously. Beyond such humanitarian considerations, it appears something else was the driving force.

The direct impact of the Libyan uprising on the price of crude oil was immediately alarming and, blaming Gadhafi for that problem, there was need to bring him to book. Again, we must remember that Gadhafi had already angered the West through several unacceptable acts (especially those verging on terrorism such as the Lockerbie bombing in 1988) and other threatening moves (such as building the infrastructure for nuclear weapons, which was responsible for the US’ listing of Libya as one of the countries supporting terrorism). That the US bombed Libya in 1986 as a result of such threats belongs to history but it can be used to explain the decisive measures now being taken to cripple Gadhafi.

Hypocrisy of the West

In assessing the global response to the Libyan crisis, we must not fail to include the hypocrisy and self-interest of the West.

The US, for instance, didn’t respond directly to the crisis until after it had evacuated its citizens from Libya, which suggests something questionable. In the period, the US was jittery as the price of crude oil rose. Not until King Fahd of Saudi Arabia returned home from a 6-month-long foreign trip to announce that his country would pump more oil beyond the OPEC quota did the US heave a sigh of relief to begin doing to Libya what we now know.

On its part, Italy hasn’t vehemently reacted to the Libyan crisis, apparently because it doesn’t want to do anything drastic to have adverse effects on its huge investments in that country. Self-interest at its best!

Although the West is responding to the humanitarian crisis, there is concern that it hasn’t helped African migrant workers caught up in this uprising in Libya. As the anti-Gadhafi elements began accusing Gadhafi of bringing in mercenaries from Black Africa to fight his cause, a lot of Africans became targets of atrocity but no one seems to be tackling that aspect of the crisis.

As we continue to monitor closely the Libyan crisis, we should not lose sight of the fact that the massive involvement of weapons in the uprising imposes an additional burden on us. How do we ensure that weapons don’t become the main tool for determining the outcome of the conflict? Africa already has too many conflict situations, which imposes too much on the UN and other agencies. We shouldn’t allow the Libyan one to add to the lot. That’s why all efforts must be made to tackle the crisis without creating conditions for a prolonged internecine (civil) war in Libya.

Libya’s Future

The future looks bleak. It will not be easy restoring stability to Libya in the post-Gadhafi period. As we can see from happenings in Tunisia and Egypt, finding the antidote to the problems caused by the power vacuum and destabilization of the civil service structure and infrastructure is not easy. In such an environment, the tension that led to the overthrow of the Heads of State will not evaporate all too soon. If the security system is not strong enough to soak up the pressure and maintain law and order, the system will be so fragile as to collapse at the poke of a finger. Long after the departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the embers of the uprising are still burning in Tunisia and Egypt. Instability weakens the economy.

In the case of Libya, the direct recourse to arms and the deep tribal differences that seem to be the impetus for the conflict indicate that the center cannot hold too easily now that things have fallen apart and military might rules in the affairs of both the anti-Gadhafi and pro-government forces. A post-Gadhafi era may be as turbulent as the situation is now. That’s another danger waiting to rear its ugly head.