Libyan Crisis: Revolution or Regime Change?

AP Photo/Ben Curtis
By Ramee Mossa

Following two successful protest movements on either side of the country, Libya itself fell victim to the encroaching Arab Spring. The protests spread quickly in Libya, beginning in mid-February in the east of the country, and then quickly moved to the outskirts of Tripoli in the west within a week. There were celebrations in the streets of Libya, and the optimism spread to Libya’s politicians and diplomatic corps as nearly every major embassy shifted their allegiances from Muammar Gaddafi to the people. 

As confidence in the opposition movement grew, the military itself appeared to be disintegrating as reports emerged that air force pilots refused orders and defected while other members of the armed forces left the command structure and joined to fight alongside protesters. By this point, international discourse on Libya had named the protesters rebels, and many began referring to the movement as a revolution. Gaddafi however, is not yet ready to let go and has desperately clung to power in the following months.

After all these events Gaddafi appeared – through the lens of the media – to be losing his grip on power. Nothing was further from the truth however: his army has stayed loyal. It appears now that Gaddafi is not just a mad man, but rather a mad man with a really solid strategy. He had allowed those with no intention to fight for him to openly identify themselves and leave the command structure of his armed forces. He also actively recruited mercenary pilots and soldiers to replace them. After several weird and dramatic TV appearances, Gaddafi sent the order to the armed forces to retake the country. Pro-Gaddafi forces quickly and violently retook control of most of the country and the days of the protest movement-turned-revolution appeared to be numbered. What had become clear at this point is that the army would remain loyal to Gaddafi.

Gaddafi began his counter-offensive on 6 March, and within a week his forces quickly crushed the revolutionary movement and pushed the rebel forces all the way back to Benghazi, where the rebel forces and their command are based. Gaddafi’s promise of revenge upon members of his own society led the international community to act in defence of the Libyan people. On 19 March, an international coalition began enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in response to UN Security Council resolution 1973. The coalition was originally led by France and the UK, supported by the Americans, but five days later NATO took over responsibilities for the no-fly zone. Meanwhile, coalition forces expanded their mission to bombing pro-Gaddafi forces on the ground. On 31 March, NATO further expanded its role by taking over all operations in Libya under a unified mission dubbed Operation Unified Protector. As a result of the scale of the NATO intervention, the operation in Libya is increasingly looking like a regime change rather than a revolution.

While the difference between revolution and regime change may be trivial for some, in practice it is anything but that. A revolution, while it comes in all shapes and forms, is a self sustaining and self contained movement. It generally has the goal of changing the government and drastically altering the composition and form of government as well as that of the society. Regime change, on the other hand, is a form of invasion, influenced, launched and/or supporter by outsiders. In fact, regime change is hardly distinguishable from an invasion. Iraq is a case in point.

The facts are simply undeniable: Libya is quickly becoming the victim of a western-led regime change. The uprising/revolution was crushed by pro-Gaddafi forces and the only reason why they have regained any ground and survived Gaddafi’s forces is because of the coalition’s support. While intervention began as enforcement of a no-fly zone, it quickly expanded to ground support. The US and other nations have pledged millions of dollars of non lethal aid to the rebels. American officials have stated that the aid could include vehicles, fuel trucks, protective vests and communications equipment. Furthermore, AFP reports that rebels are in positive discussions with three nations regarding military aid. The UK, France and Italy have also sent in dozens of military advisors and trainers to aid rebel forces, according to Voice of America. In addition, the EU has announced publicly that it is considering sending armed forces into Libya, pending UN Security Council approval, to aid Libyan rebels in their struggle against Gaddafi.

To further expand on the differences between revolution and regime change, it is important to assess the aftermath of each and consider how it applies in the case of Libya. Since a revolution is self-contained, the aftermath of a revolution often involves consolidating power, personnel purges, and reconstruction. The consequences of a regime change also typically involve consolidating power; however, those who had the greatest participation in the mission, namely the outside powers responsible for the regime change, will play a much larger role afterward. In Iraq for example, the US and UK remained present on the streets of Iraq for nearly eight years. These countries have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction, playing a major role in drafting Iraq’s new constitution and forming its new government. It is likely that neither the US nor the UK will withdraw troops according to schedule (combat troops are set to leave by the end of 2011) as they have rebuilt an Iraqi state heavily dependent on western assistance.

Clearly, however, Libya is not Iraq. Both are different in so many ways, but they are similar in one important aspect. If Gaddafi falls at the hands of a western-dependent opposition, both countries will have been subjected to a forceful regime change brought on by external powers. Much of Libya is being destroyed by coalition bombing and pro-Gaddafi forces as the war continues to expand.

Whether coalition forces like it or not, rebuilding Libya’s government and establishing democracy will be a long term mission. The mission to rid Libya of Gaddafi will undoubtedly be a success, as pro-Gaddafi forces have a limited ability to resist the might of coalition forces. But what is at question is how long coalition members will have to remain in the country.

Libya may require years of external assistance with reconstruction efforts such as building democratic institutions and policing the streets. Without external assistance, even a victory over Gaddafi’s forces cannot ensure that Libya will not fall back into chaos. It is also likely that this burden will fall on European powers since they are the ones leading the charge against Gaddafi. European powers also have the most to fear if Libya falls into chaos or unfriendly hands. Europe is the recipient of over 80 per cent of Libyan oil exports. More importantly, European states are desperately trying to avoid a large influx of refugees from other North African states which are experiencing large anti-government, pro-democracy protest movements.

Europe and the coalition it has built are now locked into ongoing Libyan events; they no longer have the choice to back down. As a result, European leaders have made a commitment to change the Libyan regime by force, a commitment in which failure and withdrawal are no longer viable options. Consequently, the situation in Libya should no longer be referred to as a people’s revolution, but rather it is an externally-driven regime change in which external powers play the most important roles. This will remain the case both now and in the foreseeable future. For European powers, this commitment comes with many inescapable responsibilities, including the reconstruction of a stable, viable and democratic Libya. Europe’s role in Libya will lock it into a commitment which parallels that of the US-UK commitment in Iraq. 


18 May 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis


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