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Middle East and Africa

The Obscure Points of the Libyan Crisis

In the face of the Libyan crisis one fact seems evident: we do not know a great deal about what is really happening. After all, we are (almost) all reading Al Jazeera, which is not exactly a model of impartiality. In the absence of reliable information, it can be useful to list a couple of obscure points of the new war into which we found ourselves catapulted.



First of all the rebels. Who are they? The reports of the first days tended to associate them with the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters. With the passing of days it became increasingly clear (we had hinted at this in the last newsletter) that we were involved in a civil war: Cyrenaica against Tripolitania (the two historic regions of Libya), divided according to tribal loyalty. The fact remains that the rebels want to break with a suffocating dictatorship and demand greater freedom, but also suggests a somewhat more complex picture than ‘the young asking for democracy’. That is to say, Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, is not a nation-state. It does not have long-standing common past. There are no significant political parties, the army, unlike the bordering countries, is made up of a great number of mercenaries and Islam itself was until now spread by the interpretation of Gaddafi (except for the underground presence of militant Islamists, not alien to the revolt).



Lately even the exact number of the rebels has not been clear. The rebels are as little known as Colonel Gaddafi is well known. In the past years he has been forgiven everything (undisturbed, he gave a lectio magistralis at the University La Sapienza, the same university at which a handful of courageous lecturers managed to turn down the visit of Benedict XVI). Now it has been decided that Gaddafi has to pay the price for this. Or better, France has decided, Great Britain has agreed, the United States has let them go ahead, Germany has abstained, Italy thought that it was a lesser evil to be in than out and the Arab League made an attempt to mediate between internal contrasting positions, except for expressing its astonishment (and Turkey too) before the fact that the no-fly zone was imposed with the use of force and not with a gracious snap of the fingers.



The conciliation of the various positions has required time, thus letting the rebels be scuppered, to then launch an ill-defined military campaign (‘peace mission’) in great haste. Officially the aim is to avoid Gaddafi’s violence on ‘civilians and populated areas by civilians threatened with attack in the Arab Libyan Jamahiriyya, Bengazi included’. The only clear point in the UN formulation is the protection of Bengazi, which has already been reached. From there it spreads to the rest of Cyrenaica in the hands of the rebels, an objective that is now being reached. The text however lends itself to a wider interpretation in which the areas threatened by attack come to coincide with the whole of Libya. In other words, the objective becomes the hunt for Gaddafi. An extremely dangerous hypothesis, since there are many ‘civilians under threat of attack’ by their dictators in the world. Are we supposed to go to war against all of them?



The experience in Serbia tells us that it is unlikely that a regime can be overturned with a series of targeted air raids. As has already been seen, Iraq demonstrates what it means to intervene on the ground. What will decide the interpretation of the UN resolution will therefore be the real military substance of the rebels, who are increasingly armed and provided with weapons. If they advance, it will be a war for democracy. If they do not advance, it will be a humanitarian war. One and only one war, a war of interests, even though it seems awful nowadays.



The fact that various European countries, the first among which France, were trying to create a greater economic space in Libya is well known. For Paris there was also the question of atoning for the terrible management of the Tunisian revolution and probably they considered taking advantage of the unrest crossing the Arab world to settle the matter. But Gaddafi demonstrated that he was more deeply rooted in the country than was thought. The game has become dangerous, France and Great Britain have chosen to play it out all the same and the others have followed suit. Until now the results have been confusion over the objectives, unscrupulousness in the means, bad strategic assessments and the inevitable involvement of civilians, while pretending not to think about ground intervention. These are not good premises and will make the next declarations of support for democratic movements in the Arab countries a little more suspicious.



* An abrigded version of this article has been published on the Italian newspaper Avvenire, on March 12th , 2011, p.12