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A Libyan tragedy

October 26, 2011

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THE eight-month long operation to overthrow Qadhafi has come to its predictable end. The victorious forces claim that democracy has come to Libya. While the winners are busy scrambling for spoils it is necessary to ponder the many questions the ugly conflict has thrown up.

The first question relates to the circumstances of Qadhafi's slaying. There are two versions of his last hours. According to the first version, Qadhafi was hiding in a drainpipe under a road, was wounded by gunfire from outside and captured alive. A later account said he was wounded when his vehicle was strafed by Nato planes and captured alive. According to both accounts, Qadhafi was murdered by his custodians. This was an act of brutality and subversion of justice as the forces that captured Qadhafi had a duty to surrender him to the International Criminal Court that had issued a warrant for his arrest and trial.

The inquiry body set up in the wake of worldwide condemnation is likely to put the blame on some junior fighters who had been drained of humanitarian instincts by an extended conflict and the atrocities of the Qadhafi forces. There may be an element of truth in this explanation but nothing can absolve the rebel high command and their controllers in Nato of their complicity in an unnecessary murder. The incident exemplifies one of the dirtiest wars carried out to secure a regime change.

A larger Libyan tragedy is the huge loss of life caused by both sides. The Qadhafi regime used its horrendous weapons against the rebels without compunction and the latter were equally merciless. Indeed, scores of Libyans have been victims of revenge killing after the last Qadhafi stronghold had fallen. Were all these massacres necessary? Was this the only way to settle scores with a desert warlord whose erratic flamboyance was for long a source of irritation to his more sophisticated seniors?

Nobody can defend Qadhafi for oppressing his people and for collecting personal wealth that should have been used to raise the people's standard of living. But was he really punished for being a bad or cruel ruler? For one thing, he was targeted after he had become amenable to the dictates and wishes of the world's de facto policemen. And for another, how many cruel rulers have these policemen raided with arms? References have openly been made to rights to Libya's oil and other resources and to the need for avoiding the mistakes that enabled Far Eastern entrepreneurs to beat the westerners in the race for Iraqi spoils. And one does not know how long it will take Libya to pay the Nato powers for securing a regime change in their own favour.

The fact that should cause anxiety to the Third World is that Libya has added another chapter to the new international law that is being developed and enforced by the big powers not on the basis of civilised concepts of peace and war but on the arrogant use of lethal force. Forget the Latin American conflicts of 1940s and 1960s, the overthrow of Mosaddeq in the 1950s, and the prolonged wars in Indo-China for these could be attributed to a hangover of colonialism. But on which principle of international law were Iraq and Libya invaded?

Ultimately, it will be found that these questionable wars have brutalised humankind, undermined genuine peace and put a question mark against the 21st-century human being's claim to being a civilised creature.

Another aspect of the Libyan tragedy is the failure of non-western alliances to play a healthy role in the conflict. The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Conference have so often been found out as clubs of sawdust nincompoops that their delivery to funerary services has become overdue. But the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) could have done something more than sulking over the turn of events.

That Qadhafi made OAU intervention difficult or impossible may be true but that again reflects on the organisation's immaturity and weakness. The OAU should have intervened not only when Libya had been invaded but more essentially when Qadhafi was setting records in despotism.

When will the Third World leaders find time and opportunity to reflect on the causes and consequences of their retreat throughout the past 66 years (after the Second World War). More than 100 countries have gained independence and more than a dozen Third World leaders have shone for years as a beacon for humankind.

What is their position now? They cannot even speak with one voice, nor with one another. They are fighting amongst themselves and approaching their oppressors to end their quarrels. If they do not rediscover the bonds of Third World unity they should be prepared for absolute humiliation and all the miseries of servitude in the days to come.

The biggest part of the Libyan tragedy is the fall of the man who showed immense promise when he swept aside a conservative ruler and put Libya on the path of modernisation 42 years ago. Of course, he was adept at making enemies. For instance, he annoyed international capital when he sent bags of money to cash-starved Pakistan in 1972-73 and his willingness to help Bhutto realise his nuclear ambition was quite unforgivable (by the stewards of the nuclear club and by peace-loving Pakistanis too).

In a way Qadhafi shared the fate of most of the Third World founders of modern nations — exceptions like Nyerere or even Nehru prove the rule. Why did they forget all about democracy once the people had installed them in power? Why were they blinded to the corruption of their families and favourites? Why did they not learn to tolerate or even forgive dissent? The issue needs thorough research from all possible angles, otherwise the countries of Asia and Africa, in particular, will never learn the art of governance for the maximum good of their people.

A few stray thoughts come to mind. One of the biggest mistakes the newly independent countries of the Third World appear to have made is persisting with imported polities of the democratic variety without pushing for society's liberation from pre-democracy, even pre-political, concepts. The disjunction between state and society persuades unskilled rulers to solve all problems by force. The need for this leads to the birth of an anti-people bureaucracy and military, and the state is driven farther and farther away from its goal.

Besides, those who bring about revolutions (Soekarno, Nasser, Nkrumah, Qadhafi et al) are perhaps so convinced (on their own or by their sycophants) of their infallibility that they begin to believe themselves to be invincible and indestructible as well. Qadhafi perhaps spurned all friendly advice because of this. He could not believe that any Libyan would turn against him. He did not realise that the desert Bedouin he liked to play would be the last to accept modernism. The tribal got him. There are surely lessons in the Libyan tragedy for many rulers provided they have time to think.