The romantic glow from the upheavals in the Arab world has begun to dim. The Egyptian army, which had been hailed as a saviour and partner in the protest movement, is now the focus of protests in Tahrir Square as the young protesters realize that ousting Hosni Mubarak was not enough to attain the fundamental economic and political changes necessary if the country is not to fall back into stagnation.
The same scenario is playing out in Tunisia.
In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have made a surprisingly strong comeback, even as the rebels begin to display resentment at NATO’s bombing of a rebel column of tanks instead of taking them to a quick victory. In Yemen, where casualties run into the hundreds, President Saleh is resisting American efforts to force him to step down. Syria is rocked by daily demonstrations and more deaths at the hands of government forces firing on funeral processions. Meanwhile, the Western silence on Bahrain is deafening as the majority Shia chafe under emergency rule enforced by Saudi troops and, it is rumoured, increasing numbers of fresh Pakistani recruits.
It would have been surprising if decades of suppression by regimes aligned to protect and promote Western interests (including Israel), partly through cynical religious manipulation and partly through the creation of ever larger security apparatuses, could be shrugged off quickly and painlessly. These oppressive regimes are reinforced by continued military and other interventions as the West tries to retain its former control of oil and dominance in the region. Western powers appear to have divided the region, more or less, into stable monarchies and precarious, or “pretend” (our term) democracies. Since the monarchies are concentrated in the oil-rich Gulf, they are receiving unequivocal support, while regime change is encouraged in North Africa and those Arab regimes that don’t possess much oil, such as Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia.
Libya is a unique case, once shunned by the West because of its nuclear weapons (since given up) but now wooed by the West as a significant supplier of crude to Europe. However since a Jasmine Uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi, a combination of United Nations authorization and NATO force is being used to try out a new strategy. It’s called the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) using overwhelming air power to achieve regime change antiseptically from 30,000 feet in the air and no boots on the ground.
The UN is no longer paralysed by Cold War rivalries. Now the Western powers in the UN Security Council are reshaping its mode of functioning to favour armed intervention justified by the R2P, born out of the anguish of standing aside as the massacre in Rwanda took place. According to the original UN charter, only a threat to international peace and security (code words for world wars or regional instability) justified armed interventions. This is clearly not the case in the civil war in Libya. Equally dangerous for the credibility of the UN, is that in the rare case of justified intervention on humanitarian grounds, it will become more difficult to gain international acceptance because of the exposures of less noble motives, as happened repeatedly in Iraq.
Increasingly, contested elections in emerging democracies are followed by varying amounts of violence, as seen in the case of the Ivory Coast. There are 20 elections coming up in Africa in the next 18 months. While some will surely be peaceful and incumbents will hand over power, recent history in countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast is not comforting. This weekend’s parliamentary elections in Nigeria were relatively peaceful, despite a postponement, but there are no guarantees that violence will not break out when the results are announced. Will the UN authorize armed intervention in every country where violence breaks out? How much violence is tolerable?
As for Libya, NATO’s “no-fly” campaign belies the failure of the massive bombings in the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, more recently, the ten-year-long no-fly zone over Iraq to gain military victory without the commitment of ground troops. Nevertheless, the West’s unwillingness to absorb casualties of its own, even while inflicting thousands in the target country, is propelling renewed efforts by NATO to turn war into a video game.
By its ability to shock and awe, air power can create the illusion of quick victory, often through the fall of a dictator. But for real democratization, regime change must be followed by nation-building – for which there is no appetite. Nor is it clear that the tens of billions of dollars and a decade spent in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan will result in lasting change, including in laws and cultural practices related to gender, religion and ethnicity.
At almost the same time as Western aircraft began to bomb Libyan forces, French jets, joined by UN helicopters, intervened in the conflict in the Ivory Coast. On March 31, an editorial in the Washington Post, known to reflect the views of the U.S. government, highlighted the differences between the two countries, explaining that American intervention was not called for in Ivory Coast because of ‘the strength of the opposition forces.’ The challenger, Alassane Ouattara, had won the UN-monitored election in the Ivory Coast, and the African Union as well as the regional body, the Economic Cooperation Organization of West African States, had called on the loser, President Laurent Gbagbo, to stand down. In Libya, on the other hand, there was no way to assess the strength of the opposition: Gaddafi—in power for 42 years—is the only ruler that the vast majority of Libyans have ever known. The tribal allegiances remain powerful and the army has stayed loyal.
In terms of doctrine then, it reveals that armed intervention by the West, under the UN umbrella, does not depend on local factors such as the wishes of the people, but favours the existing great power equations. Although Western-backed ceasefire and peace talks with Gaddafi have been rejected by the rebels, the military stalemate is becoming less and less acceptable to the NATO forces because of their draining commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is ominous because the most likely outcome will be a divided Libya with a shattered economy, as well as the dislocation of tens of thousands of expatriate labourers, including 19,000 Indians.
Countries such as India that aspire to permanent membership in the UN Security Council must help to change course. They must act independently and on the merits of each case, not allow themselves to be hustled into quick votes without adequate prior consultation. This was done in the case of Resolution No. 1975, authorising armed intervention in the Ivory Coast; it passed in just two days, despite the disquiet expressed by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN. This is not an argument for consistency but for the creation of a framework within which emerging problems can be dealt with. The abstention of the BRIC countries could be the starting point for an influential group of countries taking independent positions in the Security Council.
An issue that will be faced in the coming months and days will flow out of the much-anticipated elections in the Arab countries newly rid of their dictators: the strength of religion as a political and social factor and what that will mean for religious minorities. Already, Coptic churches in Egypt have been attacked. Will the northern Muslims and tribes in the Ivory Coast who support Ouattara undertake organized revenge attacks against the Christian supporters of Gbagbo in the mixed neighbourhoods of Abidjan? Will the eastern and western tribes in Libya live together amicably?
We are entering interesting times, and it will be very important to minimize outside interference, especially of the armed variety. The UN must not only be impartial; it must, like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be so.
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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