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The difficult bit: the Arab spring after Libya

The outcome of the Libyan conflict leaves the Arab world’s wider political momentum to be decided by the interplay between mobilisation and repression, says Mark Taylor.
Mark Taylor
16 September 2011

In Libya, the worst has been avoided. For now. The possibility of a protracted insurgency against an entrenched Gaddafi regime has been swept aside by an uprising (again) in Tripoli and a speedy advance by Nato-assisted rebels (see Martin Shaw, "The revolution-intervention dynamic", 5 September 2011).

This was never a foregone conclusion. Nato air-power alone was not capable of deposing Gaddafi and has limited usefulness in protecting civilians, both because precision-bombing often isn't (too often poorly targeted) and because it can do little to prevent the all-too-familiar atrocities by local thugs with guns.

The risks of a longer, Iraq-style stalemate and quagmire were always real: the coastal to-and-fro which dominated much of the first months of fighting, and the push earlier this summer for the insertion of foreign troops, was evidence that the proverbial quagmire was lurking just over the horizon (see Paul Rogers, "Libya and a decade's war", 1 April 2011).

The Libyan endgame

Libyans will be breathing a sigh of relief, as (for different reasons) will David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama. The former because the violence may now be in its last stages, the latter because the gamble that limited intervention could protect people and topple a dictator appears for once to have paid off.

That is a momentum which needs backing, since getting the gun out of politics is a necessary first step in making democracy possible (see "Libya's challenge: democracy under the gun", 1 April 2011). Political violence - by state forces, rebels, foreigners like Nato - demobilises mass movements. Early on in Libya, violence swept away any talk of a political strategy to advance the original demands of the rebellion.

Yet the violence continues, as Gaddafi loyalists fight to hold the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte. The decisions about the use of force in the Libyan denouement will decide much about the country's immediate future: the new government must choose between pursuing a military campaign in the hunt for Gaddafi or negotiating a deal with his remaining fighters to end the violence. And having armed lots of young men, will the new government be up to the challenge of decommissioning the weapons?

Whatever happens, the sad fact is that the longer violence dictates the politics of opposition movements, as it did almost from the start in Libya, the more likely it is that victory will not result in a notably different regime from the one it deposes. Demilitarising the struggle for democracy in Libya must be the first priority to avoid a defeat for democracy being snatched from victory over Gaddafi.

In the light of recent efforts, the foreign role in stabilisation or peacebuilding is unlikely to help very much. The World Bank recognised the new government on 13 September, as had many states. But Libya's potential oil revenues mean that foreign governments and the international financial institutions will soon have little leverage over the incoming Libyan regime.

The competition to sort out the oil-company contracts will mean there will be precious little coherence in the international effort. Sure, there will be aid money, and promises of military assistance, but these will be geared towards securing market-share for "our" oil companies and will be less concerned about securing transparency and accountability by and for the Libyan people.

If the effect of foreign-sponsored "transition" is likely to undermine whatever is left of a democratic spirit to the Libyan revolt, the other participants in the Arab spring are not in a position to inject democratic inspiration. Everywhere in the region, the movements for democracy are challenged on several fronts. In Tunisia, and particularly in Egypt, political instability and renewed attempts at repression (recent reports put the number of Egyptians tried in the military courts at 12,000) mean the initial victory of deposing the dictator is looking increasingly like the easy part.

The regional fallout

The United States remains ambivalent at best about the Arab spring. It may have sidelined Iran but more generally has upset Washington's regional-alliance system. This system - centred on Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - now faces possibly fatal tensions.

Saudi Arabia, for example, faces a kind of soft-power seige on its legitimacy imposed indirectly by demonstrators in Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt. Anything which undermines the likelihood that the democratic wave spreads to Saudi Arabia will be welcome in Washington (see Madawi al-Rasheed, "The Saudi complex: power vs rights", 19 April 2011). Similarly, there is little evidence of official US concern about the much-feared (by conservatives) activism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the latter's increasingly apparent alliance with the military council.

Meanwhile, Egypt's foreign policy is increasingly vulnerable to public opinion, making its alliance with Israel more shaky by the day. The weakness of the Syrian and Iranian regimes might be a relative advantage to Israel, but the reality of the mass mobilisation in Israel's neighbours means Israel can rely neither on friends nor foe to act predictably (see Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel and the Arab awakening", 9 March 2011).

On top of all of this, Israel's de facto alliance with Turkey is in shreds and Turkey (as shown in prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya) seeks to become both the interim leader of the Arab world and a possible patron-state of the democracy movements there (the fact that Turkey is not an Arab state says volumes about the ability of Arab regimes, either individually or collectively, to stabilise or lead the region's democratic wave).

Yet the fact remains that the Arab spring has survived the Libyan war. The demonstrators at its heart have redefined the political space in their countries and as a result laid down a new dividing-line in the region, one which separates democrat from demagogue, revolution and counter-revolution. From the start, the struggles in the Arab world have aimed to establish one clear principle: that sovereignty rests with the people. By deposing their dictators, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in this. Now Libya has added its weight to the momentum behind this movement.

Democrats facing violent repression elsewhere in the region, such as in Syria and Yemen, can benefit from the prospect of an end to the violence of the Libyan conflict. They should not hesitate to leverage the self-interested declarations of Sarkozy and Cameron to force increased pressure on their regimes, not least from Washington.

When the violence in Libya wanes, the Arab movements elsewhere - and their allies abroad - should push foreign governments to refocus their attention on the "people power" that now dominates the politics of the region, and press the international news media for a renewed engagement on that basis.

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