Why Libya is different - Tanvir Ahmad Khan - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=36353&Cat=9

Covering complex situations in real time, present day media rely on the repetitive use of catch phrases and tag lines that are instantly grasped by the reader or viewer. The current turmoil in the Arab world has produced several such triggers of awareness such as ‘Arab revolt,’ ‘Arab awakening,’ ‘days of rage’ and ‘Facebook revolution’. The leitmotif of reporting is the quest of Arab masses for democracy and freedom. Unfortunately, the labels obscure the particular context of each event.

The Libyan uprising has, from the beginning, fit only partially into the master story. Demonised for decades, Muammar Qadaffi came in from the cold in 2003 when he allowed the western oil companies back into Libya. He was then courted by virtually all European leaders including President Nikolas Sarkozy who has taken the lead in recognising the Benghazi-based rebel National Council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people. The rapprochement with Tripoli was worth billions of dollars to western powers. In Libya too, the per capita income rose to $ 12,000.

The uprising in eastern Libya was immediately hailed as the beginning of the end of Qaddafi’s 41-year-old reign. Triumphal reports sketched its inexorable westward march. After an initial hesitation, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both declared that it was time for Qaddafi to step down. The message was reinforced by the mobilisation of naval and air power. Libyan assets in the West were quickly frozen; the United States alone blocked assets worth more than $ 30 billion. The air became thick with incessant talk about ‘humanitarian intervention”.

A contrary narrative, written mostly by left-leaning analysts from Europe and North America, interprets western interest as lust for Libyan oil. Libya has about 3.5 percent of global oil reserves; its proven reserves stand at 46.5 billion barrels. It argued that the Libyan uprising was not an extension of non-violent movements in Tunisia and Egypt but an opportunistically timed armed insurrection supported by foreign powers. It opposed yet another invasion aimed at controlling, Iraq-style, the production and pricing of Arab oil.

The ‘Brother leader’ of the Libyans knew that the movement lacked a nation-wide dimension and had not cut through tribal loyalties. The bulk of his armed forces had not joined it either. He risked a bloody civil war by calling upon citizens to fight back and committed substantial troops to the defence of Tripoli, where a little less than one-third of Libya’s population is concentrated. The movement rapidly changed into a ragtag army hoping to seize the capital with help from an expected western-enforced no-fly zone, which the Arab League supports and arms that Obama has asked Saudi Arabia to provide. Qaddafi has used the air force and tanks to wrest the momentum from the rebels for now.

To intervene or not to intervene; that is the question. In the Security Council, Russia and China may not support military intervention. India, Brazil and South Africa have opposed it in a joint communiqué. Obama will have to return to Bush era unilateralism and, in any case, Washington can hardly walk into another quagmire with its resources heavily committed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the US, Europe is sound and fury signifying nothing. The likely option is covert operations and sustained sanctions.

Libya needs an internal reconciliation. If Muammar Qaddafi is winning, he should act with magnanimity and seek an accord with his opponents by accepting radical reforms that focus on democratic institutions and equitable distribution of Libya’s vast income. Recourse to revenge will only invite outside intervention in one form or another.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

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