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7 March 2011, Gateway House

Mid-East: Belligerence vs. evolution

As the young protesters in Libya struggle to rewrite the contract between the people and their rulers to make them more accountable, the world is reacting in predictable ways.

Director, Gateway House

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As the young protesters in Libya struggle to rewrite the contract between the people and their rulers to make them more accountable, the world is reacting in predictable ways. Western countries led by the United States and Great Britain are dusting up the old script that was played ad nauseum before the invasion of Iraq. A Venezuelan proposal for an International Commission to talk to both sides, which Libya has accepted and the Arab league has expressed interest in, is already being written off by western media outlets and shamefully echoed by India’s. In fact it would have been amazing if it had received a warmer welcome than the eminently sensible Brazil-Turkey effort of May 2010 to defuse the crisis over reprocessing of uranium by Iran. Brazil and Turkey had proposed to place over 80%of Iranian uranium under Turkish supervision, but it was rejected outright by the US and the UK perhaps because the West would rather not have solved the problem with Iran. Libya is, significantly, the only one of the North African countries in turmoil that is not a US ally nor particularly friendly to US policy in the region.

Last month, a newly belligerent Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, has ordered Gaddafi to “go now”. He told the House of Commons that the UK would not tolerate the Libyan regime using military force against its own people and that Britain has not ruled out the use of military assets. He has ordered the preparation of plans for a ‘no fly zone’ over Libya and said Britain could consider supplying arms to Libyan opposition groups. How ironic: It seems only yesterday that the British media were uncovering murky details of the deal with Gaddafi which enabled British Petroleum to reenter Libya. Meanwhile 500 British troops have been placed on standby and eight special forces have been captured by Libyan rebels near Benghazi in ambiguous circumstances.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama (left) during a photo call at the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in July 2009. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is on the extreme right.

Current non-NATO allies and friends should take note of how dizzyingly nimble the UK has become on the international stage. Even US President Obama is restrained, calling on Gaddafi to stop the violence and quit, held back perhaps by the reluctance of his Secretaries of State and Defense to use force (in yet another Muslim country). Russia and France are in the US camp, opposed to the use of force, while China is probably waiting to see which way the wind blows.

And India? India went along with the UN Security Council resolution calling on Gaddafi to stop using violence against his own people and with the reference to the International Tribunal for investigation into crimes against humanity. So far, we remain opposed to a no-fly zone or the use of force against Libya. But it is time to stop hiding behind the positions taken by the Arab League and the African Union and play a leadership role as a non permanent member of the UN Security Council. We should argue that premature UN actions and talk of supplying weapons to the Libyan opposition is to have taken sides in a civil war.  This is a time to concentrate on evacuating workers and supporting the heroic efforts of the UN High Commission on Refugees on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with Libya.

It is cynical and opportunistic for NATO countries to be so impatient to be players in the Libyan civil war. Their goal is ostensibly to protect the civilian population. But when large numbers of Pakistani and Afghan civilians are killed by drone strikes in their common border region, they are complacently labeled collateral in the War on Terror. Who has forgotten former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s assertion that the death of tens of thousands of Iraqi children was acceptable collateral from the 10 years of the no fly zone enforced over that country?

It is hard to for the global community to admit that however reprehensible, there is support for Gaddafi and his cohorts from parts of the army, the populous capital region around Tripoli and many of the tribes. The rebellious Eastern region houses a minority of the population – but has much of the oil and its extraction infrastructure. Might that be a consideration for the newly belligerent Europeans who import almost all of the oil and gas produced by Libya? Or a fear of economic refugees from North Africa, already crowding into the Italian island of Lampedusa? Or perhaps it is a wanting to safeguard billions of dollars recently invested by Western countries in the oil, hotels, real estate and retail sectors in Libya.

It is important to keep in mind that the overthrow of a repressive regime does not automatically usher in representative democracy and efficient economic management even with the support and presence of the UN and its peacekeepers. The Ivory Coast, which is going through a prolonged, painful transition, is a stark example. Last week, six women marching for peace in Abidjan, the capital, were shot dead presumably by supporters of the former president, Laurent Gbagbo. More than three months after an election result certified by the UN, Gbagbo refuses to stand down or moved out of the Presidential Palace. Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognized as having won the election, remains stranded in a hotel guarded by UN forces.  While Gbagbo’s forces terrorize people already without work, without money, without medical care and often without food in pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods in the capital, Outtara’s supporters deepen the civil war by capturing more towns contiguous to rebel held territory in the North and West. After threatening to use armed force to oust Gbagbo, the international community has fallen silent, distracted, perhaps by the uprisings in the much more strategically crucial Arab world.

Prepare for more upheaval, especially as the uprisings play out into their third month, as yet unresolved, and the risk of contagion spreads to the main oil-producing nations. The recently installed prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt have been forced to resign by continuing protests – with nothing politically realistic to take their place. In February, over a hundred Saudi intellectuals published an open letter to their government, calling for national reform including respect for religious minorities and women and against corruption and nepotism. But Saudi King Abdullah, trapped in the old habit of buying off dissent, has instead announced billions of dollars in social spending. Reacting to protests in its eastern Shia-dominated region, the Saudi government has reminded its people that protests are illegal and un-Islamic. Kuwait has already handed-out the equivalent of $2,500 dollars to all citizens, hoping for some quiet. Protests demanding reforms starting with the constitutional monarchies in Morroco, Jordan, Bahrain and especially Oman, persist. Yemen, the poorest Arab country and an important American ally in its fight against Al Qaeda, is under the most pressure despite President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s promise not to seek re-election after his present term terminates in 2013. The Syrian President has not yet faced much opposition, but for how long can he remain unscathed in the reform mood in the region?

All countries, including India fear instability in the price and availability of oil essential to keep their economies going. That makes it even more important to respect the movement for change underway in the Arab world and act constructively. Address, for instance, the humanitarian crisis of the foreig n workers from the developing countries escaping Libya into Tunisia, a country already in political and economic turmoil. Countries should not rush in belligerently in pursuit of interests other than those of the Arab people, as has been done by the West for many decades past. Instead, it is better to let the Middle East evolve and reorder itself with its own dynamic, than act on the impulse to remake it in another’s image.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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