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Egypt versus Libya

Published on April 26, 2011 by: in: Politics

Paweł Luty: Libya is the next country where the rebellion against the dictator burst out. Earlier in Tunisia Ben Ali was overthrown, the same happened to Mubarak in Egypt. It went quite smoothly in Tunisia and Egypt. It is different in Libya. Why is it more difficult to overthrow Qaddafi than it was with Ben Ali and Mubarak?


Patrycja Sasnal: Each of this country is different. Even though all of them are Arab, Muslim and are similarly located, these three countries you mentioned are very different. If I was to compare these states to Libya, probably Egypt would be the closest. Mubarak has ruled for 30 years, Qaddafi has been in power already for over 40 years. These are very strong dictators. Although in Egypt there was entirely different situation. There was a strong army which could guarantee order and which had a social support. It could convince Mubarak, what eventually happened, to give in, even though he did not want to resign from the power at all.

In Libya the situation is different because Qaddafi created that political system, that state himself. In this system the army was marginalized. Qaddafi shaped his policy this way on purpose – it was supposed to ensure than no oppositionist would gain influence either in army or in the security services or politically. Libya has also a different social structure. Tribal-clannish structure determined Qaddafi’s decisions in the internal policy. He pursued a smart strategy of providing the biggest tribes with the limited and temporal access to power: first he favoured one tribe and when it gained importance he favoured another one. He played this strategy very skillfully and this is why there was no internal force which could pose any threat to him.

It was different in Egypt. There was an army. Mubarak came from it and it was supported by the United States. Thanks to it army could become a temporary government and take over power peacefully. It could not happen the same way in Libya, this is where this difficult situation comes from.

Western politicians underline that the Libyan nation has to overthrow the dictator on its own, they can only help with raids, the same as in Kosovo. Is there a possibility that Qaddafi will be overthrown? Can grassroots movements lead to his fall? Will it be possibile without intervention by the Western countries?

We will not know that now because this intervention is already in progress…

But for now on there are only raids and missile attacks. It has not been widened to the full land intervention.

I do not see any difference. You asked if there is a possibility of grassroots overthrowing Qaddafi. There is no such a possibility anymore because an intervention from abroad is being realized. These missiles do not belong to other Libyans, they are missiles of the coalition which is in charge of this intervention. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat member of the House of Representatives, said that in his opinion the war has already started because the United States are using their missiles on the territory of another country. The fact that there was no invasion does not mean that the air space of a given country was not affected. Armed intervention is in progress. The conditions have changed.

Currently the situation is as follows: according to the intervening coalition its actions are support for the opposition which aim to defend the Libyan civilians. At the same time this intervention weakens Qaddafi greatly, his air forces were practically completely destroyed and strengthens the opposition equalizing the balance of power within Libya. The UN Security Council’s resolution number 1973 gives a very wide mandate to an international coalition to intervene, because it allows all the possible means to be taken, apart from occupation, to protect the civilians. It allows to create a non-fly zone but at the same time it prevents the opposition from an armed attack on Qaddafi because it calls for armistice. Not only cannot Qaddafi attack the oppositionist but also the rebels cannot attack him. Rebels can also break the Resolution. We have a dead-end situation.

I think that if Qaddafi did not have any support of society or his close and important people, everyone would turn their back on him. I come to the conclusion then that he still has social support. I have no idea how big this support is. Until now he based his system of government on the support of three tribes: al-Qaddafa from which he comes himself and which is small but influential, al-Magariha, which Abdelbaset al-Megrahi comes from (he was accused of attacking the plane Pan Am which crashed in Lockerbie) and Warfalla – the biggest tribe of Libya, which supposedly turned away from Qaddafi. In fact, only one of the leaders of this tribe declared that Warfalla turns away from Qaddafi. In reality it wants to stay on the outskirts of this conflict, does not want to take any side. It is an enormous tribe – out of 6,5 million Libyans from 700,000 up to a million come from the Warfalla tribe. Its behaviour will have key importance for the future course of action.

It is not only support inside Libya that counts for Qaddafi. Opinion of whole Muslim and Arab world, which is somewhere on the border, is also important for him. Until the intervention Arabs opposed Qaddafi, they considered him to be mad. Quaddafi ignored Arabs and the League of Arab States. He turned in the direction of Africa and he wanted to maintain good relations with the African Union. However, the longer the intervention will take and if there are new victims among the civilians, the Arab world will turn, not in the direction of Qaddafi himself, but against intervention. It would be understandable as the majority of the inhabitants of the Arab world are under 25 years old, surely under 30. These are people our age. They remember well first war in Iraq 1990-1991, operation Desert Fox – bombings in Iraq in 1998, war in Afghanistan in 2011 and the second war in Iraq in 2003. They remember American interventions and now again the United States, together with the coalition of the European states and two Arab states, intervene in Libya. They consider it to be another sign of American imperialism. Despite the Arab opposition against Qaddafi, reluctance against the intervention can be predominant. If that happens, the League of Arab States and the African Union will distance themselves even more from the activities of the coalition.

You mentioned a few interventions which happened in the 90s and in the first decade of the 21st century in the Middle East and Northern Africa. There was an intervention in 1993 in Somalia, in the African Cone, which was important because since then Americans were not that eager to intervene; the example of Rwanda – there was no intervention. Then there were important interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia, after which people in the West again believed that humanitarian interventions make sense. And then again, in 2003 in Iraq, when the United States completely lose credibility in the international context and the conclusion is reached that the West should not intervene. Now, after 8 years, we have Libya. Will this intervention have similar consequences as the ones mentioned above – in the diplomatic and international context?

Each case which you mentioned is specific. The ones I mentioned are the interventions in the Muslim countries against dictators or as a retaliation in Afghanistan against Taliban. These interventions you talk about – Somalia, Bosnia, the one which did not take place eventually in Rwanda – they do not have an impact on the Arab awareness, Arabs are not that much interested in them. I see two lessons for this intervention. First, the question should be asked concerning the intervention which aims to prevent the slaughter of people. The example of Rwanda – there was no intervention, there was genocide. And now the question – if there was not an intervention in Libya, would the genocide happen there? It seems that not, but we cannot be 100% sure of course. What would indicate that there the genocide might happen there? We would have to be attacked by the pictured of bloody bodies of people who were massively slaughtered by Qaddafi, shown in media. Genocide did not happen, today it is even difficult to assess credibly numbers of victims of this conflict.

We do not have data, but there are proofs for the attacks at Benghazi and Masrata, civilians were attacked, almost crashed by the tanks.

It is true that Qaddafi made a mistake of turning against his own people – and this is the reason for this intervention. When it comes to the scale of this phenomenon, Qaddafi himself talks about it in his letter addressed to Obama – he rhetorically asks what Obama would do if a part of American cities would be occupied by the hostile forces, what lesson he would teach to Qaddafi?

Back to the issue of the victims – according to credible data published by the Human Rights Watch at the end of the February there were 233 people killed in this conflict, obviously each case is different. I think that the genocide, massacre of civilians did not happen though.

I think that Qaddafi, even though considered to be an eccentric, is not a madman after all. As I said, I would learn two lessons from the previous interventions. First one in from the Iraq in 1990 and 1991 and Saddam Hussein – the dictator was not thrown over there, he kept the power for a couple of years after introducing the no-fly zone. This would suggest that the coalition which is in charge of this operation may get involved for years if Qaddafi remains in power, which is still possible.

The second lesson concerns the situation already after overthrowing the dictator. The year 2001 in Afghanistan, fast liquidation of the Taliban’s power and the year 2003 and Saddam Hussein – the operation itself took slightly over a month. We see what happened then, American and NATO are still there and nobody knows what to do. In Afghanistan there is a tribal society, similarly to Libya and other countries in the Northern Africa. These lessons do not burst with optimism. I would compare the intervention in Libya to these interventions. Non-fly zone worked somehow in Iraq, the problem was with so-called rules of engagement, namely the rules defining when to fly and when a plane can be attacked – to cut a long story short, how this zone is supposed to work. This did not work in Bosnia, however. Bosnia is an example of a failure, massacre in Srebrenica took place a few months after introducing a non-fly zone.

From what you are saying the conclusion can be reached, correct me if I am wrong, that the intervention in Libya is a mistake?

In my opinion it is premature, but what is the difference if we judge it as premature or wrong, if it is in progress already anyway – we have to think what to do now. The intervention cannot be taken back. I can see a few scenarios for the development of the situation. Optimum scenario in my opinion would be the one when the intervention leads to equalizing the potentials, as I said at the beginning. I think that Qaddafi was planning to hand over power to his son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, who by the way had quite a big support of the Libyan middle class. It might happen that he will represent the group, which will remain in the position and those tribes and clans who are still supporting Qaddafi – this will be one force. The second force is the opposition,  very divided. There will be a deadlock, which might lead to a situation when both sides sit down to negotiate, because it will not be possible move either way. Unless there is an intervention from outside. If the coalition which is now in charge of this operation does not intend to liquidate Qaddafi, as the British and American representatives claim – Robert Gates directly says that it would be a mistake – it might lead to activation of the diplomaticy and finally to an agreement. It is highly unlikely taking into consideration that the intervention radicalizes the attitudes on both sides. Anyway I think that this would be an optimum solution.

Of course there is also a possibility that at some point the coalition will attack Qaddafi, he will die, but given how he keeps picturing the intervention as a next crusade, attack of colonialist – won’t he become, at least for some people, a martyr? Another black scenario assumes that there might happen some mistakes in these attacks, which are never 100% accurate. If a missile reaches some building which it was not supposed to reach and as a result some civilians are killed – Qaddafi will show it as an ultimate symptom of the imperialism; then it might lead to the situation when the Arab street will turn away from the intervention. A few days ago, during his visit in Cairo, Ban Ki-Moon was attacked by the protestants, who were demonstrating in favour of Qaddafi; in Cairo – a place where Mubarak has just been overthrown.

There are also a lot of scenarios somewhere in between – that it will drag up, that it will be Iraq from the 90s or Afghanistan and Iraq of the 21st century. I do not know the answer to the question what will happen when Qaddafi is attacked, his supporters run away or he himself runs away – he has a lot of place where he could go, Sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda – how will the rebels, who are so much divided, manage then? Even though they are united now against a common enemy, among opposition there are forces from the radical Islamists to radical secularists and the person who leads the Libyan National Transitional Council in Benghazi is Mustafa Abd al-Dżalil – a person who was a Minister of Justice in Qaddafi’s government as recently as at the beginning of February and he is related to the tribe of al-Qaddafa. He is considered by the secularists, young and more liberal people, to be a conservative – this shows how much the opposition is divided. The question arises then what they would do when Qaddafi leaves? What system of government would be the best solution for such a state, where there are so many tribes – I think that it would be a consensual democracy, namely such a political system, which guarantees a representation for the particular tribes in line with their power and number in the state. Such a system is in Lebanon – it is very problematic and internal crises appear repeatedly.

But in Lebanon the neighbouring states – Israel, Syria, Iran – interfere with the state’s internal affairs…

True but this is not a unique reason for the internal problems; Lebanon itself is a conglomerate of various national, religious and philosophical powers – the form of consensual democracy is surely the most suitable one. The fact that neighbouring countries – and not only neighbouring, sufficient to mention Saudi Arabia – is another thing. It is a complicated situation, it would probably be similar in Libya. So what will happen after Qaddafi is entirely different question.

You said that the best scenario would be the one leading to the negotiations between both sides – then probably it would need a mediator. Before the interview you mentioned that you are constantly watching Al Jazeera, which is a TV coming from Qatar. Qatar gets involved in the action – it gains importance in the context of soft power, both through the TV and the diplomatic actions. Could Qatar be such a mediating state – is it such a serious power already or is it growing to be this power which could play a stabilizing role in the region of the Middle East and Northern Africa?

Generally speaking as you said – yes, it might be a mediating state, a stabilizing power because Qatar in spite of its small size is an important country. You were right indicating the soft power of Qatar. But in Libya – because Qatar was among countries which were supporting the idea of standing up against Qaddafi the most – I do not think that it would make a good conciliator in this crisis. It is true that Qatar negotiated and helped in the conflict in Lebanon, it led to the May agreement, conciliated both sides, Qatar is also a state which mediates between two sides in the League of Arab States – on one hand there is Saudi Arabia, on the other hand Syria. These countries got slightly closer – Qatar probably played some role in this rapprochement. Despite all this I still do not think that in Libyan conflict it can play again such a role exactly because it took definitely one side, but there could be a few mediators in this conflict. It seems to me that at the beginning Amr Moussa, namely the president of League of Arab Nations, who will run for presidential elections in Egypt. First as a president he presented a League’s stand as unequivocal that a non-fly zone has to be introduced and that Qaddafi has to stop attacking his people; when the attacks started he said yes for non-fly zones but why these bombings? As if he did not know what he agreed to, what the Arab League agreed to. Yesterday again he said that he is totally for this operation – in terms of image it was very bad for the coalition that suddenly Amr Moussa, who symbolically represents all Arabs, turns his back on this action. They probably somehow convinced him to speak in favour of the action. Finally I am not sure if Egypt, this new Egypt, could not be such a negotiator. There is some information that weapons for the opposition in Libya are smuggled through the Egyptian border. I think that Egypt or some high ranked representative of the Egyptian army could be such a mediator; who know if not Turkey – they would gladly accept such a task. Until now they behaved very cautiously, they do not want the engagement of the NATO, they cautiously spoke about the non-fly zone – I think that Turks here are not on a losing position, especially as they are Muslim state. Engagement of Germany seems less probably, even though it cannot be ruled out. Germans have a very good record of such negotiations and mediations for example with Hezbollah, Hamas or other pariahs of the Middle East so I would not rule out the possibility that German intelligence forces could get involved in such an action.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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About Patrycja Sasnal

Analyst of the Polish Institute of International Affair, editorial secretary in “PISM Strategic Files”.

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