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September 2, 2011 

Libya: Was armed revolt and western
intervention the only option?

By Stephen Zunes

The decision by the United States and its Western allies to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi may have averted a massacre, but it is fraught with serious risks of eventually costing even more lives. Furthermore, it could undermine the remarkable and overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy movements which have been sweeping the Arab world in recent months. As will be described below, had Libya's popular uprising maintained its largely nonviolent discipline of its early days, there probably would not be the bloody stalemate and other dangers now emerging in the conflict.

What has been notable about the successful civil uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the serious popular challenges to the Yemeni and Bahraini dictatorships and the smaller-scale protests sweeping the region, is that they were completely indigenous and not sullied by foreign intervention. Furthermore, the chances of a successful transition to democracy following the ouster of an authoritarian regime are much higher if the overthrow results from a massive nonviolent movement, which requires the establishment of broad alliances of civil society organizations and the cooperation and consensus to make that possible. This contrasts with an overthrow resulting from a violent struggle - led by an elite vanguard, dominated by martial values and seeking power through force of arms rather than popular participation - which, more often than not, has simply resulted in a new dictatorship.

Providing military support to a disorganized, armed resistance movement means more people getting killed; it does not necessarily create a disciplined fighting force capable of defeating a well-armed regime, much less establishing a stable democratic order. When massive nonviolent resistance liberated a number of key Libyan cities back in February, popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi - a city of over a million people - established a municipal government run by an improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, academics, and other professionals. Since the resistance to Gaddafi turned primarily violent, however, the leadership of the movement appears to now have significant representation from top cabinet officials and military officers, who for years had been allied with the tyrant, defected only in recent weeks and whose support for democracy is rather dubious.

This underscores that just because the incumbent regime may be evil and resistance to the regime is just, its replacement could end up being worse, a possibility greatly enhanced if power is seized through force of arms. For example, one could certainly make an argument that the mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s also had a just cause and that the civilian population of that country also needed to be defended from the threat of serious war crimes. However, 80 percent of the billions of dollars of US aid money sent to help the Afghan "freedom fighters" ended up in the hands of Hezb-i-Islami, an extremist minority faction, which slaughtered many thousands of Afghan civilians and is currently allied with the Taliban and attacking US forces.

How to Undermine Qaddafi?

As mercurial and repressive as Gaddafi is, he still has a social base. It is not just foreign mercenaries that are keeping him in power. In his 41 years as ruler, he wrested the country away from neo-colonial domination, instilled a sense of national pride and - despite his mismanagement and capricious policies - led his country to achieve the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa, surpassing scores of relatively wealthy non-African countries as Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Russia. There are many Libyans who, while unhappy with Qaddafi's rule, are not ready to support the opposition.

For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on their side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans need to engage in strategies that will make the regime come across as illegitimate and a traitorous, while making themselves look virtuous and patriotic.

Given how their history of suffering under colonialism and foreign intervention has made Libyans notoriously xenophobic, there is a risk of a nationalist reaction from Western bombing that could strengthen Gaddafi more than the damage done to Gaddafi's war-making machinery would weaken him.

In addition, defections by security forces - critically important in ousting a military-backed regime - are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being attacked by foreign forces.

During the independence struggle in Kosovo during the 1990s, the United States and other Western nations stood by - and, to a limited extent, even supported Milosevic - when the ethnic Albanians were largely united in support of the nonviolent movement led by the moderate Ibrahim Rugova and the Democratic League of Kosovo. It was only when the violent and chauvinistic Kosovo Liberation Army took the lead in the independence struggle late in the decade that the West intervened on their behalf.

The 11-week NATO bombing campaign took over 500 civilian lives, provoked the worst of the ethnic cleansing and caused enormous devastation to Serbia's infrastructure, temporarily setting back the Serbian pro-democracy struggle (which eventually triumphed in ousting Milosevic in a nonviolent insurrection in October 2000.) US and NATO policy toward Kosovo sent just the wrong message: if you are moderate and nonviolent, we will ignore you. If you take up arms, we will come to your aid.

Continued US support for the Yemeni and Bahraini governments as they brutally suppress nonviolent pro-democracy forces while simultaneously coming to the aid of the violent Libyan opposition similarly sends the wrong message.

It is critical, therefore, that those of us who would like to see democracy triumph in Libya challenge the myth that a military solution is the only alternative to ending Gaddafi's repression and tyranny.

Did Nonviolence "Not Work"?

The overwhelmingly nonviolent, pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February followed scores of successful unarmed civil insurrections over the past few decades, which have brought down dictatorships in scores of countries, including Serbia, Chile, Poland, Bolivia, Czechoslovakia, Nepal and the Maldives. In addition, despite government repression, nonviolent protests in recent weeks have seriously challenged the governments of Yemen and Bahrain, while smaller protests have broken out in Syria, Oman, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria and Morocco.

Yet, only in Libya has the pro-democracy struggle deteriorated into a bloody civil war, which has been used as an excuse for foreign military intervention.

Some analysts have tried to attribute this to Gaddafi, arguing that nonviolence "can't work" when faced with such a ruthless tyrant. History, however, has shown repeatedly that dictators as willing as Qaddafi to unleash massive violence against unarmed citizens were nevertheless overthrown through large-scale nonviolent action.

From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections have ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have them refuse, forcing the dictatorships to fall. On January 14, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that "arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded." In response, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president he would refuse to orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family then fled the country.

In 1991, Gen. Moussa Traoré, the military dictator of Mali, ordered his troops to fire on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, killing hundreds, but the resistance movement remained nonviolent and, within days, enough soldiers deserted to force him from power. Similarly, General Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia for 33 years and who had more blood on his hands than almost any leader of the second half of the 20th century, bearing direct responsibility for the deaths for many hundreds of thousands of Indonesian and East Timorese civilians, was ousted in a largely nonviolent uprising in 1998.

In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent during the first week of the uprising. It was during this period that the pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile and otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution.

It was when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution's progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya.

It is certainly true that a successful, popular, nonviolent uprising against the Libyan regime would be a greater challenge for pro-democracy forces than in Tunisia or Egypt, given that Libya is what political scientists call a "rentier state," a country that derives a substantial portion of its revenues not from the labor or its people, but from the "rent" of its natural resources to external clients. As a result, civil society tends to be a lot weaker. When a government is not dependent on the cooperation of its people to labor, pay taxes, serve in the security forces and perform other functions to prop up its rule, it becomes more difficult to dislodge the regime through noncooperation. The regime can bring in foreign workers, rely on oil revenues and hire mercenaries.

At the same time, there are still plenty of options the opposition could have relied upon, as well as avoiding some of the mistakes apparent in the initial phase of the uprising.

Smart strategy is key to any insurrection, whether it be armed or unarmed. The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising, in its nonviolent phase, focused almost exclusively on mass protests, making them easy targets for Gaddafi's repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics -- including strikes (which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation. In short, the failure of the nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not well-organized strategically.

This does not mean that armed struggle has any greater chance of success, however. Military force challenges Gaddafi at his strongest point where he clearly has the advantages and, with all land approaches to the capital Tripoli through flat open desert, it is hardly an ideal situation for successful insurrectionary warfare either. And the slaughter has only increased since the movement turned violent.

Even now, if a cease-fire could be arranged, rebel-controlled areas could solidify a well-functioning democratic order other Libyans would desire to emulate, while dissidents within areas controlled by Qaddafi could begin a series of strikes and other actions which -- combined with international sanctions targeting the regime -- could seriously undermine the dictator's ability to resist. However, the promise of continued US and NATO military support will make it unlikely that either side will abide by a cease-fire and a bloody stalemate could go on indefinitely. As a result, Western military intervention -- despite the seeming moral imperative that prompted it -- could prove to have made matters worse.

Stephen Zunes is Professor of Politics and Chair of Mid-Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco