Libya's challenge: democracy under the gun

The military intervention in Libya now threatens the Arab democracy risings. This makes diplomacy and demilitarisation essential, says Mark Taylor.  

The struggles in the Arab world aim to establish one simple principle: sovereignty rests with the people. By deposing their dictators, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in this. Whether they will succeed in much more - democracy, rule of law, protection of rights, social progress - will be decided in the months and years to come. 
 

For the moment, two things are shaping the course of events in each Arab country. The first is the pattern of mass mobilisation. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the forces involved are well organised or at least have organised sectors of society on their side - new social movements, professional associations, trade unions, Islamist and secular opposition parties. In Libya, this is not the case. 
 

The second is violence, who uses it and to what ends. In Egypt and Tunisia, the opposition avoided a major military crackdown. In Syria and Yemen, they are trying hard to do the same. In Libya, the early demonstrations were crushed with brute force, but in the eastern city of Benghazi protesters won over elements of the army and declared a liberated zone. The conflict then morphed from one which had pitted protesters against brutal state repression into a civil war between protesters-with-guns and state forces that were better equipped and organised.

As a result of Gaddafi's repression, foreign bombs now rain down on the country. The repression and assaults on civilians, and threats of worse, led to the United Nations resolution sanctioning a “no-fly zone” and to sustained bombing of the state’s military machinery.

The military intervention by (mainly) American, French and British forces has achieved its initial aims: lives have been saved, and a movement against a dictator kept alive. But at the time of writing there is no promise of a swift end to the conflict. The significance of the intervention extends well beyond the borders of Libya. In fact, bombs would not be falling on Libya, were it not for the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and protests in Bahrain and Yemen. If Libya had descended into civil war in 2010, with the rest of the region's dictators safely in place, there would be no foreign intervention.  
 

This is because these revolutions and protests have transformed the politics of the region. In all of the democratic movements now challenging the status quo in the region, the strategy and tactics of “people power” and mass mobilisation are - for the moment - fundamental. The content of this bottom-up movement is secular, not in the sense of non-religious, but in the sense that the demands of these movements are for rights and freedoms, both political and economic.

Because those demands come from below, because they have been successful in Tunisia and Egypt, and because they are spreading like wildfire, they have redefined political legitimacy in the region. It is as though politics has returned to the Arab world. Dictators and their western backers, Islamist and neo-conservative demagogues, are all on the defensive.

The demonstrators at the heart of the Arab spring have redefined the political space in their countries and as a result laid down a new dividing-line in the region. No longer is the political contest between east and west, Muslim against the rest, or pro- or anti-imperialist, humanitarian intervention versus regime change. The dividing-line in the region today is between democratic revolution or counter-revolution.  

The new reality means that, for most in the region, the United States and its allies will be judged by their actions and whether these support or forestall democratic change. This change has forced outside powers to adapt and the Libyan intervention is the most dramatic example of this. In stark contrast to only a few weeks ago, not to intervene in Libya would have transformed the struggle in the region into one that defined the fight for democracy as a fight against the US. The US would have been blamed squarely for the defeat of democracy and, because of the changed political landscape, that would have been devastating for US interests in the region.

Doing nothing and allowing the Libyan opposition to be slaughtered held the potential for a backlash that would undermine all US-backed regimes, including Saudi Arabia (in Hillary Clinton's mind, the violence of Gaddafi probably also raised the spectre of repeating Bill Clinton's mistake on Rwanda).

The US, long a supporter of dictators in the region, had no good option in Libya. Instead, it chose the less bad one, one which held the possibility of staying on the right side of this story for now - and provided cover in advance for the fact that it will almost certainly be on the wrong side in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Syria.

There were and are other drivers of the intervention in Libya, but critical US support for intervention at an early stage was based on a calculation of strategic interest forced upon the Barack Obama administration by the changing nature of the region’s politics.  

A time for diplomacy  

But air-power has limited humanitarian impact. It cannot prevent localised atrocities by men with guns, nor can it depose Gaddafi. It levels the battlefield somewhat between the regime and the opposition, but it carries with it the dangers of harming civilians and risks a longer, Iraq-style stalemate and quagmire. 

Moreover, violence - state, rebel, and foreign - demobilises mass movements.

This is the significant long-term impact of the Libyan crisis, and a key difference with Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. The longer that violence dictates the politics of the opposition to authoritarianism, as it does today in Libya, the more likely it is that the political content of a military victory in today’s Libya will not be notably different from Gaddafi’s rise to power in 1969. That, in turn, would be a disaster for the democratic movements in the wider region.

In addition, a long, foreign war in Libya risks associating the mass-based democratic revolutions with foreigner-imposed regime change (and for what - trading an old dictator for the new?). It would help domestic opponents to paint falsely all of those now protesting in Yemen, Syria, Morocco, Bahrain as pro-western. This is in the interests of those Islamists in the region who, while opposed to the sitting dictators, are not friendly to the social and political agendas which have been mobilised by the democratic movements across the region. And, unfortunately, anything which undermines the likelihood that the democratic protest will spread to Saudi Arabia is in the geo-strategic interests of the US.

Despite its inspiring struggles and remarkable successes, the hard reality is that Arab spring is threatened on several fronts. But the most immediate threat is from continuing violence in Libya.

The Gaddafi regime is crumbling. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be a swift end. Nato should continue to protect civilians from the air and the International Criminal Court should pursue Gaddafi and his inner circle.

But the protection of civilians, accountability for crimes, or even the provision of air cover for disorganised rebels, is not a political strategy.

Military intervention will not establish democracy and without an endgame it will do more harm than good. The present violence has swept away any talk of a political strategy that advances the original demands of the rebellion in Libya: an end to dictatorship, political institutions that protect rights and freedoms. And now, talk of oil-export revenues, aid money and military support are all likely to severely undermine whatever is left of a democratic movement.

For those countries that support the opposition, there are ways to limit the damage of such "kindness". Support should be provided so that the opposition can at least protect themselves and the territory they control.

But beyond that, support should be conditional on their effectiveness in protecting civilians and opposition commitment to a democratic future in Libya.

The protection of civilians and de facto support for the Libyan opposition meant that the no-fly zone was a good idea. But now - in the absence of a clear military strategy, and because of the real threat to the regional movement towards democracy - the process of ending military action as a whole needs to start.

A political process must be launched with the ultimate goal of demilitarising the political struggle in Libya. That is the job of diplomacy.

The objective should not be to freeze the conflict or foreclose the possibility of more defections. The collapse of the regime should be encouraged and it is arguable that a political process to take the gun out of Libyan politics may hasten that end. Whatever happens in Libya, it is certain that continuing violence will only threaten the popular movements towards democracy now sweeping the region.  

About the author

Mark Taylor is a senior researcher at Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in Oslo and founding member of the Center for American Progress’ Just Jobs Network. He publishes and advises on the law and economics of violence and conflict.

 

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Mark Taylor is deputy managing director of the Fafo Institute, Oslo

Also by Mark Taylor in openDemocracy:

"Annapolis: how to avoid failure" (12 November 2007) - with Mariano Aguirre