The overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya - messy and incomplete though it remains - represents a striking success for the Arab revolt which began only in December 2010. While the movements in Tunisia and Egypt achieved regime change through peaceful protest, that in Libya has succeeded through armed rebellion, but this moment - awaited by most older Libyans for the forty-two years of Gaddafi’s rule - still belongs to the same wave (see "The global democratic revolution: a new stage", 7 March 2011).
This victory also represents an important shift in world politics. The synergies between anti-authoritarian movements in the non-western world and international (western and United Nations) governmental action - which were evident in the 1990s but disrupted by George W Bush’s disastrous regime change in Iraq, which substituted military intervention for local democratic action - have been partially restored by the successful Nato intervention in Libya.
These developments are accompanied by two misleading and confused criticisms. First, several observers point out that Nato’s campaign aimed not only at civilian protection (the manifest UN mandate) but also at regime change - though this must be set against the reality that the civilian population had arisen precisely to achieve the latter, and that the threat of violence against them arose from that fact.
Second, it is further argued that there has been an “imperial hijacking” of the Libyan movement, which would never have succeeded without western bombing. The latter point is evidently correct; but more relevant is that the movement was inspired by the courageous actions of everyday Libyans, many of whom (unlike Nato’s leaders and airmen) have given their lives.
Until they began to protest in February 2011 - peacefully at first, and in Tripoli even before Benghazi - western governments (Britain and France prominently among them) were all too happy to sell arms, riot-control gear and anything else to the Libyan dictator (see Fred Halliday, "Libya's regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy", 8 September 2009).
Politics amid contradiction
These interpretations ignore the fact that international politics is often contradictory, a reality that revolutions tend to heighten. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron may be unprincipled politicians, interested mainly in votes and trade, but they nevertheless played a progressive role in Libya: first in preventing the crushing of the revolt, and then in ensuring its success. The significance of their stand is not undermined even by, for example, their use of anti-immigrant politics (in Sarkozy's case, scaremongering together with Silvio Berlusconi about the new migrants the Libya revolt was unleashing into the European Union); though the more discreet United States involvement was actually the most decisive international contribution.
The fact that some of the mix of elements in the Libyan movement itself are less than attractive is part of this same messy reality. In a society where (unlike Egypt and Tunisia) no independent organisation was allowed, some ex-regime figures have partially dominated the movement (rather like in Romania after the fall of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime in 1989). In the initially unequal military struggle, the rebels had to accept the aid of defecting Gaddafi commanders, which produced (inter alia) a conflict between the movement in Misrata and the National Transitional Council [NTC]). Amidst exaggerated suspicions of the role of mercenaries in Gaddafi’s repression, anti-black racism has surfaced.
In addition, the civil war has clearly produced enormous human costs (as have several of the wars of the last decade). The NTC estimates of 50,000 deaths may prove exaggerated - as many initial estimates tend to do - but large numbers of people have died in the fighting, as TV reports on the overflowing morgues of Tripoli have illustrated. The numbers of wounded and psychologically harmed will be even greater. In this sense the price paid by Libyan society is many times in excess of their co-revolutionaries elsewhere: the death-toll in Syria, which after months of violent repression has been estimated (in late August) at a little over 2,200, is an example.
The armed character of the Libyan movement is undoubtedly very significant for the future. There is proper attention on atrocities committed by rebel fighters, although the regime appears to be responsible for the worst such actions (including a reported massacre of over 100 men in Tripoli). As the rebels move to the exercise of state power, their conduct towards Sirte and other Gaddafi outposts will be a crucial indicator of their respect for the laws of war, and more generally of their ability to produce a viable settlement in Libyan society.
It must be of concern that the struggle has given to young men with weapons such an important role, and this will pose significant challenges to the new Libyan government and to society. In the worst case, continuing challenges from Gaddafi-linked tribes or divisions among the rebels could produce ongoing civil war. However I remain unconvinced (as I argued in April) by easy comparisons with Afghanistan and Iraq (see "Libya: popular revolt, military intervention", 7 April 2011). The high level of urbanisation of Libyan society and the degree of popular unity in supporting the overthrow of Gaddafi make this a significantly different situation.
The war’s accounting
There remain two crucial questions about the international significance of the Libyan outcome. The first concerns the kind of boost it will give to the emancipatory movement across the Arab world. Now that a band of three countries in north Africa has been liberated from dictatorship, the military-backed Algerian regime will be feeling nervous and even the “reformed” Moroccan monarchy may wonder if it has gone far enough to stave off revolt. The fall of Gaddafi has already been welcomed by those struggling peacefully against the Syrian dictatorship, and has emboldened those in the United States and Europe looking for (non-military) means of helping the protesters.
The second concerns the implications for international politics. Much has been written about the revival of “humanitarian intervention” in a new guise. In reality, Nato’s Libyan campaign is not so different from the Kosovo campaign of March-June 1999; the main difference is that in Libya the alliance between Nato and the rebels has been more open.
Whether Libya creates a new template depends partially on whether this Nato campaign, formally prosecuted in the cause of civilian protection, has actually produced a lower rate of civilian casualties from aerial bombing than others. There have been no reports of Libyan wedding-parties being strafed with the regularity of those in Afghanistan, which may turn out to be significant. The credibly reported incidents of civilian deaths (including one in Zlitan where (according to the Gaddafi regime) eighty-five civilians died) have been relatively few; but as Paul Rogers points out, Nato refuses to account for the casualties it has caused (see "The casualties of war: Libya and beyond", 7 July 2011). In any event, there will be an accounting - if not from Nato itself, then from independent NGOs or scholars.
I have argued that western bombing campaigns systematically transfer risks from aircrew to the civilians they are supposed to protect (see Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks", 24 July 2009). How far did this happen in Libya? It will be interesting to see if surveillance from UN Security Council members, concerned that Nato was overstepping its mandate, actually made a difference. In some other cases (bombing in Afghanistan, drone-warfare in Pakistan and elsewhere), it does seem that relative western indifference to civilian casualties is one of the causes of death. A serious lower civilian death-rate from the Libyan bombing may again raise the spectre of ultra-precise, “humane” intervention. But it will also raise awkward questions about the conduct of operations elsewhere.
For the moment, Nato’s success gives a boost to western governments, which have little else to celebrate as their economies stall. And it puts governments like the Russian and Chinese, which permitted the Libyan venture with some reluctance, on the defensive. But Libya’s transformation may give new life to the Arab upheavals, such as in Syria. There will then be more shocks on the way, and none of the world’s governments can be confident of its future in a world in which the people are once again on the march.