World politics and the revolution in Libya

It’s time for new thinking for Libya, or the post-revolution country may find itself as a neo-colony.

Libyan rebels

When Libyan rebels and Western liberals called for intervention to stop Gadaffi’s forces outside Benghazi, many mistakenly imagined the war might end quickly [GALLO/GETTY]


Revolts and revolutions begin locally but their outcomes are often determined globally. The rebels themselves understandably are focused on bringing down the regime that oppresses them. But the course of their struggles and the ultimate fate of their revolution can be shaped by faraway forces and events. 

When the Libyan rebels and Western liberals called for intervention to stop Gaddafi’s forces outside Benghazi, many mistakenly imagined the war might end quickly with a rebel sweep through the desert to Tripoli. The problem is that, even with NATO air support, the rebels lacked the military ability to assault the regime’s strongholds. 

This is no insult to the courage of the rebels or to their dedication, but a reflection of the fact that military effectiveness requires training and organisation they simply did not have. For them, NATO intervention averted a massacre; for Western publics, the intervention appeared wholly motivated by humanitarian concerns. 

It was certainly understandable in the circumstances. But by bringing in NATO the Libyan revolution not only gave the West a seat at the ruling table, they surrendered the possibility of developing their own political and military autonomy. 

Passion is not enough

Frantz Fanon would have had some harsh advice for the Libyan rebels. He knew that revolutions required the kind of passion and willingness to sacrifice that the Libyan people demonstrated. He also knew that passion was not enough, that revolutions had to develop an iron discipline to have any chance of achieving their goals. 

Often this lesson is taught to a revolutionary people by a massacre at the hands of the regime’s security forces. The survivors learn to organise, to strategise from a position that is weak in material but strong in spirit, and to begin the long war. On a smaller scale, this is what happened in Misurata. It is a costly, often tragic path, but it holds out the possibility of a revolution that acquires the organisation and power to determine its own fate, or to at least have a chance at doing so. It might also have taught Libya’s fractious clans to work together.

Instead, NATO aircraft and French arms have made up for the absence of discipline and cohesion among the rebels.

It is unclear just why a West burdened with multiple crises decided to commit itself to Libya. The media drama around Benghazi, the weakness of the Gaddafi regime, its proximity to Europe, and the desire of Sarkozy and Cameron to relive bygone days as leaders of great powers all played a role. 

The initial ambivalence of the Western commitment was clear for everyone to see. Airpower is a profoundly seductive instrument, seemingly available for a romantic weekend without strings or consequences. The knights of the sky were given a suitably gallant mission, protecting civilians. They were above, so to speak, the struggle for power in Libya. 

As ever with the West, it was simply assumed that when swords were unsheathed the barbarians would crumple. But Europe is not what it was, its fleets on the sea and in the air much depleted, its treasuries – and even its armouries – nearly empty. 

Gaddafi’s fate

Obama stayed only for the hot weekend, thereafter providing support behind the scenes to the tryst over Libya. But like Cameron, Sarkozy, and NATO, this was enough to entangle him; their fates are now all tied up with that of Gaddafi’s regime. 

And that is whyGaddafi has no chance of surviving. 

To be sure, he has played a relatively good game of it. Employed on its own, airpower has never quite lived up to the promises of its advocates. Before human rights, the idea was to punish populations into giving up the fight, a strategy which usually produced the opposite outcome. Paradoxically, the combination of precision guided munitions and international law have made airpower more effective, forcing air staffs to think harder about just what they bomb and why. 

As a consequence, Gaddafi has watched his regime be dismantled around him, strike by strike. In the end, if he is not already there, he will be reduced to moving from safe house to safe house, unable to exercise any control over the disaggregated remnants of his armed forces and ministries. 

Still, even as the rebel net closes in around Tripoli, it is a curious feature of this kind of warfare that it is probably up to Gaddafi and the people around him when the final curtain will fall. Neither the rebels nor NATO’s air forces, short of a lucky strike, have the ability to take him out. The end will mostly likely come when a member of his inner circle or of his dwindling ranks of supporters decides it is time to turn him over or put a bullet in the back of his head. 

But the end must come because otherwise NATO and the leaders of three major Western powers would have to admit they could not defeat a ramshackle desert kingdom. If it is necessary, the pressures of the upcoming US presidential election will force Obama to reengage and do whatever it takes to bring the affair to a close. 

At that point, outside involvement will have shaped the course and outcome of the Libyan revolt. But it is only then that the full weight of the world will make itself felt. 

A revolution at risk

Any social, economic or political programme adopted by the Libyan revolution will have to be compatible with the demands of the West. The revolution will already have acquired the habit of working with Western officials. Western trained Libyans, imbued with Western ideas about free markets, foreign investment, and private control of the economy will return to play key roles. Any return of Libyan assets or access to international lines of credit will be dependent on adopting a neoliberal programme. The EU will insist Libya resumes its role as the European border police, incarcerating African migrants in concentration camps well out of sight of the tender consciences of European liberals. 

Instead of Norway on the Mediterranean, using its oil wealth for social values and the benefit of its own people, the Libyan revolution risks becoming a neo-colony. It will see its wealth divided between foreigners and a local elite; its democracy reduced to periodic elections; and its security policy an outpost of the Global War on Terror. 

The basic problem facing the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring is the absence of international support for political and economic models other than Chinese authoritarianism or Western neoliberalism. It is time for new thinking, with ideas from Oslo and Brasila rather than London and Washington. 

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. Most recently, he is author of Globalisation and War.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.