As the tidal wave of popular uprisings swept across the Arab world, the February 17 movement in Libya appeared to be on the same trajectory as other movements that led to the downfall of dictators in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. What was crystal clear from the onset was the open wish of the international community, in particular, the US, which called for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the Obama administration was ready to offer “any type of assistance” to Libyans seeking to oust Gaddafi. This was of course a great departure from the approach employed in response to the uprising in Egypt. Obama then urged an orderly transition to democracy. At no point did he come out demanding that Hosni Mubarak step down. We have noted the same duplicity in response to the popular revolt in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The US response to these revolutions in the US suggests to the rest of the world that dictators who are friends of Washington have an option to remain in power if they pursue political reforms. The US will not pressure them to step down but will only condemn their violent crackdown on peaceful protests while taking no stronger action against the deaths of unarmed civilians.
While Mubarak embarked on a murderous orgy of unarmed civilians, the US and the rest of the Western world stood by picking their noses. There was no hurried attempt to convene the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting and pass a resolution in response to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Surprisingly, the UNSC was very swift in passing a resolution that imposed an arms embargo over Libya and target sanctions on Gaddafi and his inner circle. This was a clear indication that Gaddafi did not belong to the protected club of Arab dictators.
A common refrain that has persisted among pro-democracy posers has been that Gaddafi is killing civilians and they need to be protected from him. Do civilians in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Ivory Coast not need protection as well? Why are these civilians left at the mercy of tyrants who refuse to yield to the legitimate demands to step down?
The UNSC hastily passed a resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya when it became clear that armed rebels were losing against the might of Gaddafi’s army. Nicolas Sarkozy of France became the front man in the mission to depose Gaddafi. There are allegations that Gaddafi had funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign. As expected, Sarkozy denied those allegations. He has grown very unpopular with the French public. Now that the prospect of re-elections appears very unfavourable, Sarkozy has found the perfect adversary in Gaddafi. Gaddafi will be used in a desperate attempt to fend off popular support for IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is said to be considering the presidential office.
The illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 did wonders for George W Bush’s popularity as he along with fellow war criminal, Dick Cheney, played on the irrational fears of paranoid Americans. Sarkozy now fancies himself the modern-day Napoleon. But Sarkozy despite the false veneer of invincibility is a worried man. He must be peeing in his pants given France’s multimillion-dollar arms deal in 2007 selling anti-tank missiles and radio communications equipment from subsidiaries of the European defence and aerospace group EADS to Libya. Libya also wanted to buy “Tiger” helicopters and two naval patrol boats, in addition to the purchase of Airbus A350 XWB and other aircraft for two Libyan airlines. With elections looming, the knowledge of French weapons being used against “civilians” must have haunted him.
But much more at stake than his own personal interests, is France’s national interest in Libya. The French oil company, Total, has been benefiting from Libyan oil. The continued unrest in Libya does not bode well for EU economies, which are still struggling with recovery from the global financial recession. The removal of Gaddafi ensures that French, UK and US oil companies can begin operations in Libya. There is no such thing as wanting to protect civilians.
Absurd parallels are being drawn between peaceful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya while ignoring the fact that Tunisians and Egyptians realised their revolution through peaceful means; that they never at any point during demonstrations resorted to armed rebellion as Libyans have.
Libyans in Benghazi appear to have been inebriated by ill-advised fanaticism after a few defections from the army and mass resignations of Libyan diplomats around the world. The people of the eastern city of Benghazi imagined themselves the Che Guevaras of the Arab world and thought they could launch a successful armed rebellion against Gaddafi and overthrow him. It appears that they operated under the naïve assumption that Gaddafi would roll over and play dead and the Libyan revolution would be tweeted.
What the people of Benghazi failed to appreciate was that there is no single country on Earth, including the mighty US, which would tolerate an armed insurrection. Gaddafi was like any other country entitled to crush the armed rebellion. One would have assumed that it is common knowledge that when you decide to embarked on an armed rebellion you will face a violent offensive by the government you attempt to overthrow. I cannot imagine the US sitting back and allowing armed American civilians to do as they please. Bloodless coups are often launched by the military not armed civilians who are clueless on how to use military weapons.
What is often repeated is that the protesters took up arms in order to protect themselves against the violent crackdown by Gaddafi’s security forces. It is a plausible argument. During the struggle against apartheid, the ANC launched an unsuccessful armed struggle against the repressive nationalist regime. The response by the apartheid regime was unforgiving and merciless. Apartheid military thugs launched raids against ANC targets, inside and outside the country. The ANC with its ragtag armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, and underground operatives suffered huge losses.
We see the same thing happen in the Middle East where oppressed Palestinians who have resorted to launching rockets against apartheid Israel in an act of desperation, are being subjected to endless bombardment. The US has for many years condoned these mass killings of Palestinian civilians, including the illegal expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories. At no point has the US supported a UNSC resolution that condemned the Israeli aggression against Palestinians nor did it openly condemn Israel for its abuse of military power against defenceless civilians.
Libyans should have drawn some instructive lessons from the peaceful protests in Egypt and not allowed themselves to be driven by their misguided exuberance to take up arms. Mubarak’s security forces had embarked on a violent crackdown of peaceful protestors in Cairo, Egypt. Snipers were used to kill unarmed demonstrators. But the Egyptian people remained steadfast in employing peaceful and non-violent means to their revolutionary aims. About more than 400 Egyptians perished at the hands of Mubarak’s security hoodlums but Egyptians remained peaceful and disciplined during this murderous campaign.
The Egyptian army recognising the peaceful nature of demonstrations guaranteed protestors that they would not intervene and they continued to exercise restraint even during violent provocations by supporters of Mubarak. The situation in Egypt could have turned for the worst had protestors resorted to an armed rebellion. The army would not have sat back when confronted by armed militias. The outcome of what could have been a peaceful revolution could have turned Tahrir Square into a bloodbath.
Dictators should have no place in the modern world. But the problem we face is the existence of “friendly” dictators and “pariah” dictators. International law is swiftly and selectively applied to pariah while friendly hoodlums continue to enjoy protection of their handlers in the West. The support for removal of tyrants should be consistently provided regardless of who the people are rising against. The US does not have the balls to openly call for King Abdullah to step down as the ruler of Saudi Arabia but without hesitation it would demand that someone like Robert Mugabe step down. There can be no international peace and security in the midst of such blatant hypocrisy by Western powers, including the UN, the mouthpiece of the five permanent members of the UNSC.
International justice is served on the basis of the national interest of Western countries not on the demands for justice by the people who have suffered at hands of tyrants. Those behind the February 17 movement should learn from the misery of the people of Iraq, who eight years ago celebrated the military intervention by the US to “liberate” them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Saddam has long been disposed of but the people of Iraq continue to live in much greater despair than they did under his iron fist.
At the end of all this military misadventure in Libya, Gaddafi may be killed, but the losers would be the Libyan people while the national interests of the Western powers would be preserved.