So Muammar Gaddafi is now dictating the momentum of events in the Middle East. Instead of the UN taking action to ensure the safety and security of civilians in Libya and the rest of the Arab world, Gaddafi’s actions have spoken louder than any words coming out of the so called ‘free world’. Gaddafi’s actions have given the other dictators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the blueprint for survival – quite simply; the use of disproportionate and deadly force and intimidation and arrest. By declaring all out war on protesters, while calling for talks at the same time, the locus of power remains within the hands of the dictators.
In Libya the protesters are vilified, relegated to the categorisation of vermin and journalists have been killed. This kind of talk and action is dangerous, as it usually precedes genocide. This is something the UN should be well aware of, but sadly their track record in preventing the killing of civilians in emerging conflicts consists of a long list of failures. In Bahrain, Saudi troops have been called in to bolster the Bahraini state forces, who attacked the protesters to clear Pearl roundabout and then proceeded to take over the main hospital (Salmaniyah), reportedly intimidating, arresting and beating unarmed patients and doctors in the hospital. In addition, Bahraini opposition figures have been arrested.
In both Libya and Bahrain, serious crimes have been committed by the very same states who are tasked with maintaining law and order. In both cases, military and civil laws have been violated by the state – situations that should be unacceptable to the international community. And while there have been words of disapproval, and calls for peace, the fact is that state imposed terror has continued un-abounded in both cases. The dictators are learning how to survive crisis, and the self-proclaimed great leader of Libya – Muammar Gaddafi – who has survived many prior crises, is showing them the way. Saif El Islam, the Libyan leaders son, has boasted that Benghazi will be taken in 48 hours, yet they are still fighting for control of Ajdabiyah. Another dictator in the making, he tries desperately to appear magnanimous and forgiving on the one hand, and threatening and rigid on the other hand. He has stated that the rebels are welcome to leave Libya in peace – subtly threatening to increase Egypt’s problems on the border by creating an even larger refugee crisis than already exists.
Yet the consequences of military crackdowns in both Libya and Bahrain will be long-lasting and severe. Clearing Pearl roundabout in the case of Bahrain, and re-taking Benghazi in the case of Libya will only push resistance underground, and after the disproportionate use of violence against opposition, it will create the conditions for more militant protest in response. In other words, those whose voices are being crushed with weapons will take up arms of their own in order to make their voices heard. This is a clear trend that persists throughout history. Even in South Africa, the killing of schoolchildren on June 16 1976 drove many towards more militant, armed action and many joined the ranks of the military wing of the ANC purely as a response to this event. When the state behaves in a manner where it regards the lives of its civilians as expendable in relation to its own survival it loses legitimacy. The first role of the state is to protect its civilians – this is also true of the army and state security apparatus’. In both cases, clear violations have been committed, and the prevarication of the UN and correspondingly the international community, have emboldened these states, which are now operating under an aura of ‘untouchability’ that must terrify its own citizens who must shudder at the thought of what is to come next, given that violations that have already occurred seem to have gone unpunished.
So the facade of using violence to create ‘stability’ has been employed as a strategy. Yet it won’t last. Just as the war in Iraq didn’t end by merely taking the capital city and declaring victory, the same will be true in both Bahrain and Libya. Urban conflicts will emerge.
In Libya, army members that have defected and civilians that have taken up arms will no doubt be in negotiation with tribal and other leaders in order to make arrangements to fight a more protracted, low frequency civil war. It is hard to envisage that after all that has occurred in Libya, the opposition will merely fade out of the picture and disappear across the borders never to be seen again. They have already become militant, and radicalisation will deepen. In the absence of support from the UN – for which they are literally begging – they will have to turn elsewhere for support, and it is clear that this is where the most dangerous positions can unfold. Abandoned in their quest for human rights by the UN and the international community, they will formulate deeper and more radical stances – and indeed, who can blame them if the organisations that purport to exist for the protection of human rights are unable to act. One only has to look at how long it has taken Israel to move beyond the distrust, paranoia and radicalisation that was brought on by the holocaust to realise what is being brewed.
The Bahraini situation is far more troublesome in terms of regional security than Libya, even though all out warfare has not yet ensued – this primarily because Bahraini protesters have remained peaceful while the government has oscillated schizophrenically; initially attacking the protesters, then backing off and guaranteeing their safety, then later inviting in Saudi forces and returning to violent means of dealing with the protesters. Yet Iran is watching closely at how the majority Shiite populations of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are being denied their basic human rights, and is already holding inquiries into the events that may lead to war. No doubt, this war has the potential to be cast in an epic light i.e. between the Sunni and Shiite populations in the region. This is potentially an explosively catastrophic development for the middle east, as it will mean a return to an age-old conflict over who has the right to the Islamic caliphate. Yet, so far, all assurances from Bahraini protesters have been given that this is not a Shiite led movement for dominance but rather a movement for establishing human rights. As the Bahraini state increases its grip on the throats of the protesters this may change, and radicalization may follow suit.
Critically, in both the cases of Libya and Bahrain it is clear that the role of the UN is now under a microscope, and rightly so. How can the heavily funded international agencies of the UN be justified if they cannot act in a timely and effective manner to guarantee human rights when they are being grossly violated for all to see? Surely when states take armed action against their own civilians there has to be recourse to regional and international action. The calls for a no-fly zone in Libya and for help in Bahrain have been clear, and a clear response is needed. Otherwise, the much vaunted quests for regional security and stability in the Middle East may be a thing of the past. If a blind eye is turned to the events that are unfolding in Libya and Bahrain in the hope that dissent will fade away, the danger is that other, more radical helpers will step in to help the Libyans and Bahraini’s – and they will have no choice but to accept help from whence it comes.