Quick takes // by Ben FrankelPity Libya: Gaddafi is not a quitter

Published 24 February 2011

There is much for which Tunisia’s Zain el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak should be criticized, but at least, at the end, they did not plunge their countries into a blood bath in order to keep their hold on power; Gaddafi is not a quitter, and it is not likely that his departure from the scene will be as peaceful

Different Arab regimes chose different ways in which to respond to popular unrest and protests. We may divide the Arab regimes’ responses into four categories. As protests spread, we may see nuances and variations within these four categories.

1. Abdication and structural change: The Tunisian leader Zain el-Abidine Ben Ali chose to leave quickly, allowing those who opposed him and remnants of his old regime to work out a new political structure for Tunisia.

2. Change at the top and political modification. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak tried to brave the protests for two weeks, but then was persuaded — or forced — by his supporters in the military to leave. The military, in power in Egypt since 1952, figured that it would be easier for it to negotiate with the protesters without the burden of the unpopular Mubarak. It appears that Egypt will emerge with a political system similar to that of Turkey, with the military involved in setting the boundaries of what is permissible in the political process, then allowing political parties and movements to act more or less freely within these bounds.

It appears the President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has chosen a similar path — although, in his case, he committed not to run for re-election rather than leave office immediately. It is not clear, though, whether the tribal and deeply divided Yemeni society can move toward a democratic system without falling apart. In 1962 Yemen broke in two when anti-royal forces, with the encouragement of Nasser’s Egypt, toppled the king. The rebels took over the capital Sanaa, while supporters of the royal family, with support from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, took over North Yemen. A vicious civil war between North Yemen and South Yemen ensued, with Egypt becoming directly involved in the war in 1964. Before Egypt withdrew its forces in 1967, the Egyptian military made history by using poisonous gas against the North.

3. Firm but restrained resistance to change. Bahrain used violence to quell a popular uprising, but the violence was relatively restrained. The protesters in Bahrain are at a disadvantage: they are mostly Shi’a (Bahrain is a Shi’a-majority country), and the last thing Western governments would want to see is the Shi’a majority in power, making Bahrain into an Iranian outpost (Hezbollah is turning Lebanon into an Iranian outpost even though the Shi’a movement is a minority, albeit the largest and best-armed minority, in Lebanon).

4. Violent resistance to change. This is what Col Muammar Gaddafi has chosen, ordering the military to bombard protesters and threatening even more violence. The protesters have now taken the eastern parts of Libya, but it appears that Gaddafi, having solidified his hold in Libya’s western provinces, would now unleash his military to re-take the Cyrenaica region, which contains the three port cities of Benghazi, Al Bayda, and Tobruk.

There is little doubt that the regime will succeed in this bloody endeavor. Gaddafi may have studied two recent examples — the way the Russian military suppressed the Chechen rebellion, and the way the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil rebellion. In both cases, the governments involved used overwhelming force, showed scant regard for civilian casualties, and did not hesitate to destroy civilian infrastructure in order to force hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, thus making vast areas into free-fire zones.

Since no outside force was willing to come to the aid of the Chechens or the Tamils, these two groups, whatever the merit of their respective causes, were doomed.

It is not clear what outside powers can do to prevent Gaddafi from doing to the protesters what Sri Lanka did to the Tamils or Russia did to the Chechens. Invading Libya is not in the cards, and imposing a no-fly zone is also problematic, in addition to being of dubious effectiveness (Gaddafi can kill the rebels with tanks).

Libya is a large oil producer, so countries importing Libyan oil — mostly European countries — would probably hesitate to do much more than condemn whatever violence Gaddafi inflicts on the rebels.

There is much for which Ben Ali and Mubarak should be criticized, but at least, at the end, they did not plunge their countries into a blood bath in order to keep their hold on power. Gaddafi is not a quitter, and it is not likely that his departure from the scene will be as peaceful. Pity.

Ben Frankel is editor of the Homeland Security NewsWire