From revolution to civil war in Libya

What the world feared would happen in Egypt is now unfolding in Libya. The peoples’ rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi is agonizingly turning into a bloody civil war. As hundreds of thousands protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a few weeks ago, Mubarak warned that chaos and war — what we are now witnessing in Libya — would be the case in Egypt in his absence. The choice he repeatedly argued was between stability and terror.
It is still too early to declare Egypt a politically stable, post-authoritarian state. Signs of conflict between fanatical Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority are certainly not encouraging. Yet, we can rest assured that the kind of chaos and mayhem Mubarak warned about — and probably wanted to foment in order to prove his point — remains elusive in Egypt.

Libya, on the other hand, is another story. The country clearly illustrates that the Arab world is not a monolith. Egypt, despite all its social and economic weaknesses, had centralized institutions. It may not be politically correct to argue this point in democratic circles, but having a strong and popular army matters greatly. It also helps if the army is not totally identified with the corrupt ancien régime. Such dynamics were in place in Egypt. Despite a long history of Egyptian military leaders assuming presidential political power, the army maintained a certain level of popular legitimacy. As a result, the Egyptian army played what most analysts consider a “constructive role” during the critical transition from autocracy to what we hope will emerge as a pluralistic and democratic order in Egypt.

The chaos in Libya proves that the country never developed a strong and legitimate centralized institution like the army in Egypt. In the absence of a strong army and other centralized institutions, Libyan society remained divided along tribal and sectarian loyalties. Now that Gaddafi’s tyrannical authority has been challenged, these tribal and sectarian loyalties are driving the political and military conflict in the country. As Anthony Shadid reports for The New York Times with characteristic insight from Libya:

“Everyone here seems to have a gun these days, in a lawlessness tempered only by revolutionary ebullience. Young men at the front parade with the swagger that a rocket-propelled grenade launcher grants but hint privately that they will try to emigrate if they fail. … No one seems to know what to call this conflict — a revolution, a civil war or, in a translation of what some call it in Arabic, ‘the events,’ a shorthand for confusing violence. It certainly looks like a war — the thud of shelling in the distance offers a cadence to occasional airstrikes, their targets smoking like oil fires that turn afternoon to dusk. The dead and dismembered are ferried in ambulances driven by medical students. But especially for the rebels, there is an amateurishness to the fighting that began as a protest and became an armed uprising.”

In the meantime, the international community is struggling to find the right way to react. Washington is torn between realpolitik asking for cost-benefit analysis and the idealism demanding clear support for the democratic aspirations of the Libyan people. The Arab League, knowing full well that it will not be the one to act, declared on Saturday its “endorsement” of a no-fly zone over Libya. It also recognized the fledgling rebel movement seeking to topple Gaddafi as the country’s legitimate government.

One may argue such moves by the Arab League are intended to put more pressure on Western powers to intervene. But the question is: What kind of intervention? Military analysts differ on whether a no-fly zone would be effective in terms of changing the balance of power in Libya. After all, much of the fighting is being done by ground forces and tank-fired artillery. Yet, Gaddafi has also used air power to bomb rebel positions and may be tempted to use chemical weapons if he begins losing.

There are also signs of typical discord in European circles. France is trying to compensate for its blunder about Tunisia by speaking far more boldly about military action in Libya than any other Western power. London, as usual, is likely to follow Washington. And Germany seems confused. Sadly, Turkey still appears to be hedging.

( / 21.03.2011)

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