The revolts in Libya are not moving as ‘smoothly’ as in Egypt and Tunisia. Gaddafi, the country’s dictator and corruptor of Western regimes and renowned scientific institutions, like the LSE, is putting up a fight against his own people. He knows the West is hesitating with regard to the enforcement of a no-fly zone and he has yet to get hold of his billions dispersed across different accounts of shadow men with even more obscure connections. (Example: officially, the assets of Libya in Austria amount to one billion Euro, unofficially to thirty billion … and counting).
Against this background a new discourse about the Arab revolts is taking shape and claiming hegemony. This is constructed as follows:
• Democracy and welfare are not achieved alone through revolt or even a revolution. Can our ‘poor’ North African Arab neighbours make it through the difficult and long days that await them? The undertone in most discussions is: no, they cannot, since they lack political parties, civil society, have no leaders—or rather no ‘one’ leader—and are poor and uneducated. (And Muslim in their majority, some add behind closed doors).
• Faced with no prospects at home, North Africans will flood Europe as refugees, pretending to flee war when in fact they are economic migrants. This could turn into a disaster for Europe. For some, Gaddafi was a guarantee that migrant waves would never grow into a tsunami. This topic has been shamefully dominating the headlines during the last few days.
• The imposition of a ‘no-fly’ zone over Libya, even with the blessings of a UN resolution, would be equivalent to a military intervention. We know where this has led us in Iraq and in Afghanistan, therefore hands off. Europeans seem almost to wish for China and Russia to veto any decision in this direction in the Security Council.
I will not comment on the heartless cynicism of the above narrative for fear of becoming more normative and polemic than I intend to, or think I should be. The above discourse represents a formula for geopolitical and foreign policy failure alone on rational grounds.
It oversimplifies matters by way of generalization. Libya is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia (just as it is not Algeria or Morocco). The chain effects of the Jasmine Revolution should not blind us to the fact that the history, economy and political institutions of these countries are different and, therefore, demand different types of interventions and different forms of international engagement. Libya is by far the most complicated for reason of its loose tribal structure and years-long subordination to a clown-dictator. At the same time, it is the richest of the three, because of its oil reserves and its enormous assets deposited in Europe and elsewhere. Egypt is the biggest country but also the one with the most solid political institutions and civil society and a comparatively large educated middle class. Tunisia is a poor country, which has been living off tourism and migrant labour in Libya, but it has a more homogeneous population and established good institutional relations with the European Union.
The refugees supposedly threatening to flood Europe also comprise different groups. The majority are still migrant workers who are caught in between warring factions. Many will want to return once the situation calms down and reconstruction begins. Some will want to use the opportunity to get out of a life of misery, but their number will largely depend on the policies implemented in the next months and years. Assuming North Africa grows into the booming region it always had the potential to become—and we never were so close to meeting that objective as we are today—then there will be many more Europeans interested in moving south than there will be North Africans interested to move north.
As to the so-called fear of a military intervention—well, a no-fly zone is a no-fly zone and not equivalent to an act of war. Regarding the comparison with Afghanistan and Iraq, this is both misplaced and meaningless. The real concern here is that of setting a precedent—as it always is when the UN is about to pass a resolution. Should we also be engaging in Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan or Darfur asked yesterday the ZDF anchorwoman Marietta Slomka of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in interview. The famous MEP failed to give a clear answer: namely, yes, we should–in fact, we already are. That is what the institution of the United Nations is about, whereby, one should add, an intervention need not always engage the military. But sometimes this is required in order to avoid worse disasters—both humanitarian and political.