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Libya and beyond: What's next for democracy?

In Egypt, the relatively short-lived military crackdown by the hated security agencies and pro-regime thugs actually strengthened the opposition, reminding the millions in the streets exactly what they were protesting against. In Libya, the Gaddafi regime seems to have turned that lesson on its head, apparently believing that if their response is violent enough, brutal enough, murderous enough, the opposition will stop. 

So far, it hasn’t worked. With earlier attacks from helicopter gunships and jet bombers, and with reports of machine gun fire in and around Tripoli continuing at least through February 24, the estimates of Libyans killed range from 300 to more than 1,000 people—but the popular resistance has continued unabated.

What is different in Libya from the earlier iterations of the Arab world’s great democratic revolution of 2011 is that the anti-regime, pro-democracy side that has succeeded in ousting the regime from major cities and most of eastern Libya, is now seeing huge sectors of the Libyan military defect directly to the opposition. Libyan civil society democracy activists in Benghazi and elsewhere are apparently taking up arms with and alongside the military units now on their side, both to defend their cities and, reportedly, to prepare to help the people of Tripoli and the west, still under Gaddafi’s contested control, finally to overthrow the regime. Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia or states where revolutionary upheavals are underway, is moving towards a military confrontation closer to a civil war.

Social, political, demographic, and other conditions in Libya are significantly different than in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or elsewhere, so it is not surprising that the progress of the revolution has differed too. The first victories—ousting a dictator in Tunisia and, soon after, the monumental achievement of the Egyptian revolution in getting rid of Mubarak—inspired democratic risings across the Arab world and North Africa, with parallel movements emerging in sub-Saharan Africa as well, in Gabon and elsewhere.

Not only the inspiration but crucially the success of Tunisia and Egypt continue to empower the rest. The regimes and societies differ widely, but the dissatisfaction is similar all over: widening gaps between the wealthy and the poor, rising unemployment and a lack of jobs for huge young populations, and most of all, the demand for dignity, hope, and for people to have a say in determining their own lives and how they are governed.

The Crumbling of the Gaddafi Regime

In Libya the opposition movement has actually seized control of cities, and now of whole sectors of the country, even while the embattled Gaddafi regime remains more or less in control of the capitol. The entire eastern parts of Libya, including the key city of Benghazi as well as numerous other cities and the long border with Egypt, all now appear to be in the hands of the opposition, in many cases reportedly with the military forces joining the protesters rather than fighting them or fleeing.

The takeover of cities by the pro-democracy demonstrators seems now to be moving closer to Tripoli in the western part of the country, with reports from the nearby city of Misurata claiming the protesters, backed by defecting army units, have been in control since February 21. The Financial Times quoted a local worker in Misurata describing how “the people are now organising themselves into committees. Some are managing traffic, others are cleaning up after the fighting and the fires of previous days. There are also people handing out water and milk to the population.” It looks very much like the self-organization of Tahrir Square in Egypt, in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain—and very much like the non-violent society-wide mobilization of the first Palestinian intifada of 1987-93.

Misurata is only about 125 miles east of Tripoli—meaning that most of the strategic Mediterranean coast from just east of the capital to the Egyptian border (excepting only the area around Sirte, Gaddafi’s tribal homeland) is now apparently controlled by pro-democracy forces. There are reports of a new local council being established in Benghazi, the first city to be taken over by the opposition. 

The regime itself continues to splinter, with top officials, including the justice minister and the interior minister, being the latest to resign. The interior minister, responsible for internal security, said he now supports what he called the “February 17 Revolution,” and urged the military forces to support the Libyan people’s “legitimate demands.” Libyan diplomats around the world, including the ambassadors to the U.S., Indonesia, Australia, India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, as well as virtually the entire staff of the Libyan mission to the United Nations, have all resigned in protest of the violence.

Other Regimes React to Stem the Tide

The regimes’ responses have differed. Some are desperately trying to make concessions, even before any protests arise.

  • In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where opposition forces have only barely shown their presence, emirs and kings have been quick to dole out money ($3,700 per family and free food for 14 months in Kuwait, new social benefits in Saudi Arabia).
  • In Jordan, the still-popular king has been trying to convince a skeptical public that his decision to sack the cabinet and appoint another appointed prime minister should somehow satisfy them. (It hasn’t.)
  • The King of Bahrain launched a vicious crack-down on the largely Shi’a protesters demanding an end to the years of discrimination against their majority community, but backed off under international pressure and turned to a series of political and financial incentives to buy new loyalty; many protesters are still demanding the transformation to a constitutional monarchy, but others have now escalated to demand an end to the king’s role altogether.
  • In Yemen, the president has pledged not to run again in the next election and other meager reforms, but his offer has been insufficient and the regime has continued using force against protesters remaining in the streets.

Meanwhile, in what seems to be an ever-growing list of countries, democracy is rising. New movements demanding democracy are rising in Djibouti, where the U.S. maintains its sole military base on the African continent; in Algeria, a crucial oil-exporting country with its own proud history of independent struggle; in Syria, where the long-standing president has so far vowed only that he will not run again. And of course, many union supporters in Wisconsin claim the Egyptian victory as their own inspiration.

The International Response

With Libya providing huge percentages of the oil and gas imported by powerful European countries—especially Italy—and with the UK working hard the last several years to burnish Libya’s image so that British Petroleum could claim a privileged stake in the Libyan oil industry and General Dynamics UK could sign lucrative weapons contracts, western countries came late and soft to criticize Gaddafi’s violent assault. The United States had not moved as far as most European allies in rehabilitating the Gaddafi regime after an initial embrace following Tripoli’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear programs in 2003, but still moved too slowly to fully condemn the regime.

Only on February 23 did President Obama explicitly condemn the violence, and called the bloodshed “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” He said “these actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.”

Obama spoke clearly of the importance of international action, and praised the statement released by the Security Council the day before. That UN statement included some important issues, including a condemnation of the violence, a call on the Libyan government to abide by human rights and international humanitarian law and to allow medical, humanitarian, and human rights workers in to the country, and a reference to the need for accountability for perpetrators of the violence.

But the statement was merely a Security Council press release, which lacks the power of enforcement of an actual resolution, and falls even below the status of the formal “presidential statement” which indicates Council unanimity. There was no decision, for example, to freeze all assets of Gaddafi and his family, to impose an immediate end on all weapons sales and a halt any weapons or security goods currently in the pipeline to Libya, or to refer the Libyan regime’s violence to the International Criminal Court for immediate investigation and prosecution.

In his speech, President Obama stated he had “asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners, or those that we’ll carry out through multilateral institutions.” His careful distinguishing between what the U.S. would insist on doing on its own, as opposed to actions taken with allies or in multilateral venues such as the United Nations, may be an indication why there was no stronger Security Council response. If the Council had decided, for instance, to hold Libyan officials and soldiers directly accountable for alleged war crimes against a civilian population by referring the issue directly to the International Criminal Court, what kind of a precedent would that set, and what other political leaders or soldiers responsible for civilian deaths might face that same method of accountability? If the Council had passed a resolution stating that top officials of all governments and corporations who provided weapons to the Libyan regime should be held accountable for how those weapons are being used, what precedent would that set for the powerful weapons-exporting governments and corporations now arming military forces where human rights violations and war crimes are routine?

The UN Security Council should reconvene now to pass a binding, enforceable resolution. It should demand an immediate halt to the attacks, call for immediate access for international humanitarian and human rights workers, and refer the issue to the International Court of Justice to initiate on an emergency basis a full investigation and prosecution of those responsible, making clear that not only top decision-makers but all soldiers and mercenaries carrying out illegal orders would be held to account. The resolution should require that governments and corporations with ties to the Libyan regime—especially those in Europe and the U.S.—immediately sever all military ties, cancel military contracts, and withdraw any military equipment that may be in the pipeline.

Next Steps for the United States

There has been a growing demand in the United States from powerful neo-conservative war-mongers as well as from some of the most progressive members of Congress, to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. The call has also come from former Libyan officials who have defected from the regime. But at the moment I believe that would be a mistake. There have been no reports of air strikes since February 21; current assaults are relying on heavy weapons on land. While it is certainly possible a desperate Gaddafi could lash out once again by sending his warplanes aloft to attack his own people, it isn’t clear he has loyal pilots left to answer his call. The discussion of a no-fly zone in the Security Council could well become the sole means of responding to the Libyan crisis – even though it would likely have little impact on the actual threats currently facing the Libyan people, especially in and around the capitol, and would be serve as a distraction from other actions that might actually help.

The political cost of such a decision, given its likely low protection value, must be weighed against the lessons of the 1990s-era no-fly zone established in Iraq by the U.S. and Britain, a unilaterally-imposed no-fly zone which President Bill Clinton and other officials often claimed, mendaciously, was authorized by the United Nations, but which in fact was never mentioned in any Security Council resolution. As documented by the United Nations, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq resulted in the deaths of several hundred Iraqi civilians. It is not clear that any country other than the U.S. could carry out enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya (there are even questions whether the U.S. military, already stretched in illegitimate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could field such an operation, let alone to be prepared to start immediately). But giving a Security Council imprimatur to the U.S. (or NATO, which would still be relying on U.S. air power) to define, impose, determine violations of, and carry out bombing raids in response to those violations of, a Libyan no-fly zone, when it is unlikely to actually protect Libyan civilians but could well result in justifying a much longer-term U.S. intervention than Council members anticipate, does not pass the legitimacy test.

If the fighting in Libya continues or escalates, an accountability-focused UN Security Council resolution authorizing a Blue Helmet contingent of medical, other humanitarian workers, human rights monitors, and investigators from the International Criminal Court, recruited from neighboring countries, sent with armed escort if necessary, would likely be far more useful in providing actual protection to Libyan civilians than imposing a high-profile but likely low-impact and dangerous no-fly zone.

While the Libyan leader escalates his threats, and while the violence may continue for a bit longer, the international standing of the Libyan regime has collapsed. More importantly, the territory, cities, and population still under the regime’s domination are all dwindling rapidly. Gaddafi is losing control. Democracy is gaining.

__________________________

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Phyllis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power.

Editorial Notes: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License

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