Last Saturday morning I blogged that I thought that the epicenter of the Arab revolt was now in Libya and that it was the place to watch in the immediate term, and that Yemen probably would be the most volatile and significant in the medium term. This was as opposed to the obsessive and misguided focus on Bahrain that was largely the consequence of the physical presence of international media in that relatively open society and a lack of understanding about the differences between the rather unique political mix in the "Island Kingdom" and the generalized pattern in the broader Arab world. Everything that has happened since then has tended to confirm this view, and reports coming out of Libya today suggests that the situation has become downright abominable. The Gaddafi regime, facing a wave of unprecedented protests throughout the country now including the capital of Tripoli and a pattern of diplomatic and military defections, has unleashed the full force of the Libyan military and its mercenaries on significant segments of the population. Reports suggest that extraordinary atrocities have taken place and that up to 600 people have been killed, although this may be a very lowball estimate. Information is very difficult to come by, and often is unconfirmed and/or not reliable.
Even more ominously, the situation appears to be deteriorating. There are strong suggestions that the Libyan Air Force has been deployed against protesters and rebellious areas, and that the largest city that appears to have fallen into the hands of the opposition, Benghazi, may face a sustained evening of aerial bombardment tonight with potentially unimaginable consequences. The Arab League has remained largely silent, not knowing quite what to say. Most of the international community has condemned the violence, but Italy, the former colonial master in Libya, has actually supported the Gaddafi regime with Berlusconi's Foreign Minister warning about an “Islamic emirate” just to the south of Europe and similar balderdash.
Those calling for international intervention may unfortunately be wasting their breath: no party has the inclination, the means or the ability to launch a direct military intervention in Libya under the present circumstances. It's not going to happen for the foreseeable future. This could quickly change, but for now, the Libyan drama will play out entirely, or almost entirely, based on local forces. The idea of a "no-fly zone," being floated by some dissident Libyan diplomats and others, is not completely out of the question, although who would enforce it remains undefined, and at any rate even if any international forces wanted to do this, it would take some time to organize and would not prevent atrocities on the ground. It seems virtually certain that at the end of the day, when the dust settles and no matter how much blood is spilled, the Gaddafi regime will not survive its outrageous behavior. It's a matter of how many days it takes and how many lives are taken, but at least this aspect of the outcome now seems completely unavoidable.
What we are witnessing, then, is a nightmare version of the dream that began in Tunis and Cairo. The Tunisian and Egyptian peoples were able to leave their militaries with virtually no choice but to hand hated dictators one-way tickets out of town. In both cases, when push came to shove, the Army preferred to intervene to restore order and salvage what it could of the national security state rather than confront the protesters and initiate a bloodbath. Whether or not these experiments end up in full-blown democracy or long-lasting major reforms remains to be seen, but the extraordinary displays of “people power” managed to remove the despised symbols of oppression and unseat powerful dictators. In both cases, the protests were almost entirely nonviolent and while police and thugs initially brutalized demonstrators, the militaries intervened to stop that and refused to be drawn into a direct confrontation with unarmed people. Especially after the success of the Egyptian uprising, it was virtually inevitable that the model would be followed in other parts of the Arab world, and quickly. Libya was always a prime candidate, having a sclerotic dictatorship that began in the 1960s and being sandwiched geographically directly between Tunisia and Egypt. So it's not surprising that the next phase of the new Arab uprising/awakening, or whatever it proves to be, would be in Libya.
Unfortunately, it's also not surprising that what Libya is providing is a dystopian version of the euphoric, utopian "velvet revolutions" in Egypt and Tunisia, since this military, or at least significant parts of it, appears to have no compunction in unleashing its firepower on unarmed demonstrators. There is a degree of unscrupulousness and recklessness at work in the Gaddafi regime's response that was simply missing in Tunisia and Egypt and only briefly glimpsed, and in a very limited manner, in Bahrain. But this is what it looks like when the state won't restrain itself and at least some key elements of the military, mercenaries or otherwise, will take orders to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.
What effect this will have on future potential Arab uprisings against autocratic regimes very much remains to be seen, but it will be another major turning point. Assuming that Gadhafi is overthrown, as seems inevitable, there are several obvious possible ramifications to a very bloody, as opposed to velvet, Arab revolution. First it's possible to suggest that if the Libyans can go through what they seem to be willing to endure and shake off their dictatorship in spite of the extreme violence, Arabs generally will have lost their fear of brute force. Certainly the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples were willing to face down the prospect, but the Libyans are currently suffering on the rack in actuality rather than tempting fate. It could serve as an inspiration to those who might have to face much more draconian dictatorships than those in Tunis and Cairo. But it could also be an object lesson about the costs involved, especially since the degree of carnage has yet to be fully realized. It's one thing to enter into a rebellion expecting a scenario more or less analogous to the Tunisian or Egyptian models. It's quite another to have watched what has otherwise been potential brutality actually play itself out like this, and then volunteer for a repetition in your own country. So it's possible Gaddafi's brutality might have as much of an intimidating as an encouraging effect on other Arab populations.
This could particularly be the case if the outcome is long and drawn out, and above all if it is chaotic, uncertain or yields some kind of extremist post-Gaddafi regime. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were gratifyingly secular and ecumenical, and clearly reflected the desire on the part of much of the population, especially the educated, under-employed, urban middle, lower-middle and working classes for democracy and good governance. They were strikingly non-Islamist in their character and reflected a sudden and unexpected resurgence of Arab and local nationalism and an amazingly refined sense of social consciousness. Both of these cultural phenomena — nationalism that transcends ideology and religious and sectarian identity, and a refined social consciousness — had been considered if not dead then at least moribund in the Arab world by most observers. It's extremely heartening to see that these were the animating impulses that were able to bring millions of Egyptians and Tunisians onto the streets, and not narrow-minded, obscurantist religious ideology.
One of the most severe long-term political dangers arising from the kind of brutality currently being visited upon the Libyan people is that it could have a severely radicalizing effect on the opposition and throw up a post-Gaddafi era dominated by extremists rather than reformers. Extreme violence has a historical tendency to radicalize movements in an extremely nasty way and to set the stage for gruesome replacements to grizzly regimes. Extreme American bombardment in Cambodia undoubtedly help to transform the Khmer Rouge into the monstrous regime it proved to be once it seized power. In Algeria, when the military canceled elections in the early 1990s for fear of an Islamist takeover through the ballot box and put FIS members and supporters in concentration camps in the Sahara desert, it set in motion a process of radicalization that ended up with the opposition being characterized by the most extreme version of Salafist-Jihadist mania yet seen anywhere in the Arab world. I'm not predicting that this will be the outcome of what is, without question, a very heroic uprising by the Libyan people, but rather noting that much of the hope for serious, positive reform in Egypt and Tunisia stems from the fact that the military and parts of the ruling elite refused to confront the demonstrators violently and, in the final analysis, were ready to jettison hated dictators and elements of the regime that were just not acceptable to the general public. A period of confrontation gave way to at least some degree of conciliation and compromise, which in both those cases is no doubt still a work in progress. My point is that the kind of brutality being unleashed in Libya makes such conciliation and compromise, and purposive work between elements of the military, remnants of the old regime and opposition groups towards reform, far more difficult. It could, if it goes badly wrong, throw up either a chaotic or deeply oppressive outcome, which would then have its own potential negative influence on the unfolding Arab reform protest movement.
Islamists are beginning to come out of the woodwork after having almost no role in Tunisia and being both marginalized by the protesters and also deliberately holding back in Egypt. Most notably, Yusuf Qaradawi, the elderly Egyptian Salafist who is a client of the Qatari government and a main feature on Al Jazeera Arabic, has been steadily attempting to insert himself into the reform movement limelight on a regional basis. On February 18, Qaradawi gave a speech on the evolution of post-Mubarak Egyptian politics that was not particularly subtle about the direction in which he wants the country to go. Indeed, he went further than his fellow Muslim Brothers based in Egypt ever have, since the revolt at least, in implying that there should be a theocratic element to the country's future. And today, Qaradawi had a remarkable and emotional performance on Al Jazeera Arabic in which he issued a formal fatwa calling for the death of Gaddafi. He said that any soldier or other person who could pull the trigger and end Gaddafi's life should do so immediately. The response of Al Jazeera's anchor at the end of this allegedly religious diatribe was “amen.” I'd agree that any Libyan at this stage who wanted to try to end the conflict by killing the dictator could plausibly claim to be acting in self-defense, given the number of people who've been killed by the regime. But obviously Qaradawi's extraordinary comments are political, not religious, as usual. And it's clearly another effort by the leading Islamist of the Arab world to slowly and methodically usurp the momentum of the Arab uprisings and turn it towards the ends of the Muslim Brothers and similar Salafist forces.
Whether or not anyone will really listen to Qaradawi, or whether, if they do, such efforts will actually succeed in shifting momentum away from the secular, ecumenical character of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests and finally gain some traction for an Islamist turn in the Arab uprisings very much remains to be seen. The fact is that it was nationalism and social consciousness, not Islamism, that brought millions of Arabs out onto the streets, and it may well be the animating force in Libya and elsewhere as the movements progress. As I noted over the weekend, Bahrain is a different case, and in fact does reflect sectarian tensions, although not necessarily Islamist politics as such. If the Arab uprisings and protest movements are to lay the groundwork for a better future, it's essential that notwithstanding brutal repression as being carried out by the Gaddafi regime in Libya, shameless opportunism as being conducted by Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, or sectarian tensions as evident in Bahrain, the visions for the future remain nationalist, secular and ecumenical. The purity of that vision is under serious threat from numerous quarters, but there's every reason at this stage to remain optimistic that it can nonetheless persevere. Such purity is not optional. It is essential.