Intervention in Libya - Vijay Prashad - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The stalemate continues. No asp crawls up Qaddafi’s arm. Nato remains without triumph. To go around the stalemate, the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa met in Sanya, China on April 14. Between discussions on the credit crunch and their mutual trade relations, these so-called BRIC states released a statement on the events in the Middle East and North Africa. What they saw was a “shift of power towards ordinary citizens”, a fact that must have certainly confounded one or two of the heads of government who had to swallow hard while they accepted that phrase into their final communiqué.

When it came to Libya, the consensus was not so clear. As it happens these five countries are all current members of the UN Security Council, and all took part in the debate and vote over Resolution 1973 (to authorise the no-fly zone over Libya). Brazil, China, India and Russia abstained from the vote, and South Africa went along with it after Jacob Zuma fielded an emergency phone call from Barack Obama. The lack of unanimity in the Council meant that the Sanya Declaration was also a bit stifled. Nonetheless, the five states agreed that the military option had run aground, and that “all parties should resolve their differences through peaceful means and dialogue in which the UN and regional organisations should as appropriate play their role.”

Jacob Zuma came to Hainan Island after a visit to see Col Qaddafi. He led an African Union High-Level Panel Initiative on Libya. The Panel included heads of government (such as Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali) and foreign ministers (such as Henry Oryem Okello of Uganda). Touré was an interesting choice. In 1991, as head of the parachute commandos he overthrew the austerity dictatorship of Moussa Traoré (who governed Mali from 1968), but turned over the country to civilian rule and is known as “The soldier of democracy”. Ten years later, Touré returned to politics, and has since won two elections to lead his country. Okello studied and lived in Britain for a number of years before he returned to enter the family business (his father was president of Uganda in the 1980s). He was an active member in the Juba peace talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their credibility is as good as anyone else.

The other two members of the Panel are pale shadows of Touré and Okello. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz also conducted a coup in Mauritania, but he took up office in the transition. To his credit, he resigned his position, put on a suit to campaign and won the election to the presidency in 2009. But there was no real transition. Congo Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso has presided over his country and run it since 1979. Sassou Nguesso shares much with Qaddafi, including a putative radical past. He saw the writing on the wall in 1991 was ousted from power, engineered a civil war that lasted through the 1990s and returned to being head of government in 2002. Sassou Nguesso’s path lies before Qaddafi, unless the old warhorse decides to take up an offer that has reportedly come from the Europeans, to make him honorary head of the African Union and shuttle him off to Ethiopia.

On April 10, the African Union team met with Qaddafi. The team was a month late. On March 10, at an AU meeting in Addis Ababa, a panel had been assembled to travel to Tripoli by March 20 and engage Qaddafi to draw back his troops. French attacks on Libyan air defences (March 19) on the heels of the UN resolution 1973 (March 17) impeded the envoys. The UN declined to allow them to proceed, despite assurances from both Tripoli and Benghazi that they would entertain the mediation. It is a remarkable – although unsurprising – example of the UN stopping a peace envoy and preferring bombardment.

In the context of the military stalemate, the African Union team was finally allowed to visit the two centres of the Libyan conflict. The AU mission had European Union approval. It was also welcomed by an increasingly desperate Nato command, whose inability to enforce a military breakthrough has called into question its power.

Air strikes over the past several weeks have not dampened Qaddafi’s counterattack. It is unlikely that an escalated military intervention will do any more. Qaddafi’s survival is premised on the destruction of those who oppose him. Similarly, the rebels say that Qaddafi’s eviction, not to say, termination, is a sine qua non. This is a recipe for protracted civil war. No political position is possible out of this intractable world-view. Qaddafi probably rues the day he decided to give up his nuclear weapons agenda. The Benghazi rebels are now convinced that Nato’s no-fly zone will soon morph into armed supply, and perhaps boots on the ground (this is promised in Resolution 1973). They have no need to compromise. This is the reason why they did not see eye-to-eye with the African Union delegation.

From such hardened positions, the way forward is difficult to surmise. The easy answer from London and Qatar is for greater military force against the Tripoli hub. Libya is poised to being destroyed for the purposes of higher aims. The bombardiers and artillerymen have made their case, and they have failed. It is time for Nato to pressure Benghazi, and for the AU to renew its pressure on Qaddafi: there is no substitute for an armistice and a political discussion that has been decades in the making.



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