Are Europe and the USA being drawn into the chaos of a new conflict in the Islamic world? The spectre of civil war looms large in Libya, threatening to destabilise the region for years to come. The Allied assault could turn the tide – ultimately gaining credibility for the West among Arabs. Tomas Avenarius comments
The Arab revolution has lost its innocence. Since Western warships and jets have been bombing the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi's troops, the cross-border uprising against the autocrats has ceased to be a matter exclusively involving the Arab world.
With the USA, France and Britain intervening, the uprising now runs the risk of losing its original legitimacy. The rebellion against the million-dollar kleptocrats is entering the arena of international power politics. Likewise, the Western states are at threat of being drawn into the chaos of a new war in the Islamic world through their involvement in Libya. The military intervention thus harbours risks for both the Arab world and the West.
Yet the Libyan insurgents asked for help. They stand no chance alone against Gaddafi's war machinery. Unlike the now ousted presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, the despot of Tripoli is not shy to use bombers, artillery and rockets against his people. Unlike the two neighbouring states, Gaddafiland has no independent institutions. Libya has no functioning army that could put the leader in his place, as the Tunisian and Egyptian officers did.
This – and not the alleged broad support among the people – is why Gaddafi was able to announce what awaits the insurgents: his militia would cleanse the country "house by house, room by room", destroying "these rats". Gaddafi: "There will be no mercy."
The message could not be any clearer. It says everything about the nature of Gaddafi's rule and explains why the Libyans chose to rebel. This threat forced the international community's hand. The UN Security Council gave the brief of protecting civilians; the resolution makes no mention of regime change. That remains a matter for the Libyans themselves.
Colonel Gaddafi has been ruling the land for the past 42 years. He introduced an absurd system, a state ruled by a people's congress without involvement of the people, which disregards even the simplest needs of the population: freedom and basic prosperity. Instead, he has made north Africa's oil-richest country the private property of himself and his no less behaviourally disturbed sons.
The Libyan Narcissus has crowned himself leader of the Arab world, spearhead of the fight against Israel, the African "King of Kings". His sons boast billion-dollar bank-balances in the same league as Microsoft's Bill Gates. One of the junior Gaddafis wrote his PhD on civil society; he and his brothers are the commanders of the very militias currently slaughtering dissidents.
Arab pilots against Gaddafi
This is what the uprising is fighting against. The insurgents are not a minority incited by Al-Qaeda, as Gaddafi would have us believe. They have credible goals: the end of the Gaddafi regime and free choice of the political system in their own society.
The uprising may have begun in the traditionally rebellious east. Yet in the west of the country too Libyans have been demonstrating, burning down police stations and other symbols of the despised regime. Gaddafi smothered the revolts in the west, killing civilians. He is likely to have fewer supporters in the Tripolitanian province than his carefully staged demonstrations would suggest. As soon as his army begins to struggle, new rebellions will break out.
The international community was forced to intervene in the face of the foreseeable massacre in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The warring states are pursuing their own objectives, naturally enough. It is not about oil, as is often stated: Gaddafi supplies the raw material reliably, and Germany is one of his best customers. But France's Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, is facing new elections. His role as an aggressive martial commander should help polish up his image, which suffered as a result of his cabinet ministers' embarrassing all-expenses-paid trips to the Tunisian dictatorship.
But this wannabe-Napoleon is not commander-in-chief; he is only one of the heads of state responsible for the military intervention, who have not taken the German route of withdrawing from the affair at the cost of their own credibility. Sarkozy's colleagues will have to keep a tight reign on him.
Another imperative is the involvement of Arab states in the military intervention. The Arab League pre-empted the UN Security Council in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet this is not enough. Arab pilots must also fight against Gaddafi's troops. This is the only way to refute the old-Arab argument that the military intervention is an act of aggression by colonialists and crusaders attempting to secure the oil fields for themselves.
If the West and at least a few Arab states take joint responsibility for the intervention, the rebels have a chance of ousting Gaddafi. This will reduce the risk of civil war on the Mediterranean, which would destabilise the region for years to come. And it will lend hope that the West might gain credibility in the Arab world - and perhaps a number of Arab leaders along with it.
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de