Il nuovo oltre la siepe


A grubby Libyan lesson in realpolitik

Financial Times, 22 Febbraio 2011

  Gideon Rachman

     Another week, another revolution. Muammer Gaddafi of Libya may soon become the third Arab president to be swept from power in little more than a month.

   Until a few years ago, his toppling would have been greeted with delight in western capitals. But in recent years, the Libyan leader has been recast as a reformed sinner, an ally in the “war on terror” and a valued business partner. His current travails should be a cause of justified embarrassment – not least in London – since Britain has led the way in the attempted rehabilitation of Col Gaddafi.

   Changing attitudes to the colonel highlight the way in which western concern over human rights is almost always coloured by convenience. In the 1980s, the Libyan leader was regarded as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism and rightly denounced for his dreadful human rights record. Ronald Reagan called him a “mad dog” and the US bombed Tripoli in 1986. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, by contrast, was largely tolerated because he was useful in   containing Iran.

   When the US decided it needed to topple Saddam, his ghastly human rights record received much more attention. By contrast, the cruelty of Col Gaddafi’s regime has been downplayed in recent years. As the US and the UK searched for a retrospective justification for the war on Iraq, Libya’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction was seized upon as convenient evidence that the Middle East had changed for the better after the Iraq war. In 2004, Tony Blair visited Libya and hailed Col Gaddafi as a partner in the “war on terror”. British business followed in the prime minister’s wake and lucrative oil contracts were signed. In 2008, Condoleezza Rice became the first US secretary of state to visit Libya since the 1950s.

   It is true that Libya’s behaviour, in recent years, has become less directly threatening to the west. But the Libyan leader remained a brutal despot. If he is now toppled it will be   little thanks to the US or Europe. Instead the Libyan people have looked for inspiration and practical support to their recently liberated neighbours in Egypt and Tunisia.

   Libyans need all the help they can get, because the colonel runs a much more vicious regime than those that were toppled in Egypt or Tunisia. Unlike in Tahrir Square or Tunis, no foreign television crews have been let in to record the bloodshed on the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli. Libya has never allowed even the facade of democracy and opposition that was tolerated in Egypt. All opposition political parties are banned. Indeed membership of a political party is punishable by death.

   Freedom House, which monitors political and civil liberties across the world, recently ranked Libya as the most despotic country in the Middle East. It was the only country to get the worst mark (a seven) for both political and civil liberties: it is worse than Syria, worse than Iran,   much worse than Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. According to the Freedom House rankings, Libya ranks alongside the world’s worst dictatorships – North Korea and Burma.

   Libya’s oil wealth and its eccentric and brutal ruler have allowed the country to loom much larger on the international scene than its population might warrant. Despite its vast territory (it is the fourth biggest country in Africa), Libya has a population of just 6.7m – compared with the 80m in neighbouring Egypt.

   As the Libyan regime totters, it no longer seems hyperbolic to call the events in the Middle East, “the Arab 1989”. But while the European revolutions of 1989 swept away   undemocratic regimes that were profoundly hostile to the west, the Arab revolutions have, so far, claimed pro-western regimes that were regarded as forces for moderation in the region.

   Egypt and Tunisia have gone. Libya, the west’s new-found friend, is wobbling. Bahrain, the base for the US Fifth Fleet, is in turmoil. So is Yemen, an important ally in the fight against al-Qaeda. The Americans would love to see their enemies in Iran and Syria swept away by the tide of popular revolt. The fear is that those regimes might be ruthless enough to cling on.

   That leaves Saudi Arabia as the west’s most crucial Arab ally. Few in Washington are comfortable defending a feudal monarchy whose educational system produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. Yet the Saudis have only grown more crucial to the west in recent years, as a bulwark against Iran and as the “Central Bank” of oil – the world’s largest oil producer.  

   It is not clear how Saudi Arabia will react to the loss of a key ally in Mr Mubarak and to turmoil in neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen. But a rapid move to democracy can certainly be ruled out. Rather more likely would be a Saudi move to prop up their neighbouring Sunni royal family in Bahrain, perhaps through military intervention, using the vast amounts of weaponry sold to the Saudis by eager westerners.

   The Obama administration would love to have a clear narrative in which freedom and American interests advance, hand-in-hand, across the Middle East. In reality, things are much messier and more dangerous than that.

   But there should be little room for mixed feelings about the downfall of Col Gaddafi. Despite the feeble post-Iraq efforts to rebrand the Libyan leader as a force for good, he remains what he always was – a despot and a monster.

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