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Libya Slips Into Civil War, as Democratic Uprisings Rock the Middle East

The opposition is training with troops who defected, as estimates of the number killed by the government run to more than 1,000.

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It looks very much like the self-organization of Tahrir Square in Egypt, in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain – and very much like the non-violent society-wide mobilization of the first Palestinian intifada of 1987-'93.  

Misurata is only about 125 miles east of Tripoli – meaning that most of the strategic Mediterranean coast from just east of the capital to the Egyptian border (excepting only the area around Sirte, Qaddafy’s tribal homeland) is now apparently controlled by pro-democracy forces. There are reports of a new local council being established in Benghazi, the first city to be taken over by the opposition.  

The regime itself continues to splinter, with top officials including the justice minister and the interior minister being the latest to resign. The  interior minister, responsible for internal security, said he now supports what he called the “February 17 Revolution,” and urged the military forces to support the Libyan people’s “legitimate demands.” Libyan diplomats around the world, including the ambassadors to the U.S., Indonesia, Australia, India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, as well as virtually the entire staff of the Libyan mission to the United Nations, have all resigned in protest of the violence. 

Other Regimes React to Stem the Tide 

The regimes’ responses have differed. Some are desperately trying to make concessions, even before any protests arise.

  • In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where opposition forces have barely showed their presence, emirs and kings have been quick to dole out money ($3,700 per family and free food for 14 months in Kuwait and new social benefits in Saudi Arabia).
  • In Jordan, the still-popular king has been trying to convince a skeptical public that his decision to sack the cabinet and replace another appointed prime minister should somehow satisfy them. (It hasn’t.)
  • The king of Bahrain launched a vicious crackdown on the largely Shi’a protesters demanding an end to the years of discrimination against their majority community, but backed off under international pressure and turned to a series of political and financial incentives to buy new loyalty; many protesters are still demanding the transformation to a constitutional monarchy, but others have now escalated to demand an end to the king’s role altogether.
  • In Yemen, the president has pledged not to run again in the next election and other meager reforms, but his offer has been insufficient and the regime has continued using force against protesters remaining in the streets. 

Democracy is rising (and it has been thrilling to watch union supporters in Wisconsin claim the Egyptian victory as their own inspiration).  

The International Response 

With Libya providing huge percentages of the oil and gas imported by powerful European countries – especially Italy – and with the UK working hard the last several years to burnish Libya’s image so that British Petroleum could claim a privileged stake in the Libyan oil industry and General Dynamics UK could sign lucrative weapons contracts, western countries came late and soft to criticize Qaddafy’s violent assault. The United States had not moved as far as most European allies in rehabilitating the Qaddafy regime after an initial embrace following Tripoli’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear programs in 2003, but still moved too slowly to fully condemn the regime.  

Only on Feb. 23 did President Obama explicitly condem the violence, calling the bloodshed “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” He said, “These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.” Obama spoke clearly of the importance of international action, and praised the statement released by the Security Council the day before. That  UN statement included some important issues, including a condemnation of the violence, a call on the Libyan government to abide by human rights and international humanitarian law and to allow medical, humanitarian and human rights workers into the country, and a reference to the need for accountability for perpetrators of the violence.  

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