Foreign intervention should not seek to win the war for Libyans. It should give them the tools to do so themselves.
As street protests across the Arab world are forcing governments in that region to reform their authoritarian ways, the ones in Libya have degenerated into a violent military struggle for power. It is possible that if the forces opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi win, Libyans may not see progress towards a more free society. It may tragically be yet another military cum quasi civilian government with limited commitment to democracy.
The street protests that toppled the governments of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt may not have secured democratic government right away but are likely to begin a process towards increasing democratic rule. Even in countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Algeria, the protests may not bring down incumbent rulers but have already forced them unto the reform path. When unarmed citizens force governments that are armed to the teeth to accept reform through the sheer expression of their will on the streets, then democratic reversal becomes difficult.
Libya shows how structural imperatives interact with intermediate factors to produce unexpected outcomes. When the government of Ben Ali collapsed, the next countries that seemed in the line of catching the cold were Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. These are the Arab nations with limited oil revenues and therefore without sufficient resources to buy off disgruntled youth groups. Egypt caught the cold, Jordan accepted reform, Algeria got low intensity protests, Yemen is still hanging in the balance and Syria seems to remain insulated from these protests.
Surprisingly, it is the governments of Libya, Bahrain and now Saudi Arabia that are under pressure to reform in spite of their vast oil wealth. We cannot be sure if Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will withstand the pressure and preserve their autocratic systems intact. But Libya is sure on a different path. If Gaddafi wins, he will become even more brutal and pathological. What seems his personal mental instability, may lead to an orgy of revenge killings and mass slaughter; so the best solution is that he falls. If the rebels win, it will have been one armed faction defeating another armed faction, not a people’s victory over the military.
Armed struggles hardly produce democracy because the nature of the contest either excludes ordinary people or integrates them into the struggle as quasi military personnel. Because the aim of armed revolutionaries is to capture state power, and because power cannot democratise itself, these movements tend to demonstrate initial democratic initiative but then stagnate before falling back into authoritarian decay. Egypt and Tunisia offer greater optimism because the street protesters are not seeking power but rather to create a self limiting power.
The history of democratic development shows that successful armed struggles may expand political participation but they rarely produce liberal democratic government. They will mobilise previously excluded groups like the youths, women and peasants into the political process. But they often achieve this at the price of resisting conventional democratic practices. This is often good and even necessary in the early years of reform. But when stretched over decades, it undermines democratic development.
For example, from China, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda, revolutionary movements exhibit similar characteristics. They tend to fuse the state, the party and the security and military services thus leave less room for non-military political contests. Save for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, we do not have any precedent on these movements surrendering power. Their leaders tend to die in office after which some reform towards greater political and economic freedom begins.
Although he came to power through a military coup, Gaddafi has structured his government along the lines of revolutionary movements. He involved women and youths into politics but gave them military training, an act that undercut their civic character. This meant that any civil disagreement would tend to degenerate into a military contest. Yet this is also its major weakness; because when you have an outright military contest, the one controlling the state would have an upper hand. Once Gaddafi’s opponents abandoned peaceful protests, they gave him the justification to employ military forces legitimately against them.
Thus, where it seemed the tide of history had turned against him, the resort to military struggle by his enemies has actually given the Libyan ruler a chance to recover from his initial setback. His opponents were caught in a Catch 22 situation: Gaddafi demonstrated earlier on that he was willing to use any amount of violence to stop the protesters including bombing them. This forced sections of the military and civilians to take up arms in self defence. In doing this they transformed the struggle for limited government into a struggle for military supremacy.
The worst thing to happen to Libya now would be a military intervention by the West to remove Gaddafi. That will alter the balance of forces inside the country against Gaddafi but produce an artificial victory by his opponents. Right now, they are not a unified group and do not have shared political objectives. Given his control of the ramp of security services and their loyalty to him, the defeat of Gaddafi may lead the successor government to dismantle this prop to his regime. In the short term this would create a power vacuum leading to growing chaos and disorder.
In these circumstances, the best outcome for Libya will be one where Gaddafi and his regime are defeated – but by the power of domestic forces rather than foreign intervention. The best solution for Libya now it to let the two sides tussle it out where they have decided to do it, in a military confrontation. The international community can intervene by enforcing a no-fly zone. This will limit Gaddafi’s capacity to secure a quick and decisive military victory over his adversaries while at the same time strengthen the capacity of his opponents to withstand his military onslaught.
Foreign intervention should not seek to win the war for Libyans. It should give them the tools to do so themselves. This may prolong the struggle and intensify the suffering in the short term. But it will produce a durable and more stable outcome in the long term.