The chain of regime-chang­ing protests in the Arab world may have been trig­gered through Face­book but the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must now come for­ward and help in ca­pac­ity build­ing of civil so­ci­ety and in­sti­tu­tions to en­sure that the peo­ple’s as­pi­ra­tions

Southasia - - Cover story - By Semu Bhatt

What does the fu­ture hold for the

Arab revo­lu­tion­ists?

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 in­volve-

ment 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. The writer 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.’

What is the fu­ture?

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