When Tunisia and Egypt had seen the difficulties of revolution play out, the revolution in Libya was only beginning, moving into its third week of protest. The situation had entered a stalemate between the rebel forces and the still loyal military as Nick Oliveto’s essay opens. The focus becomes the international response to the rebellion–what impact will a change in power and the unrest that accompanies that have on the European and North American communities and what should their role in this transition be?
The Tunisian regime of Ben Ali fell in a matter of days. The Egyptian regime of Mubarak fell in a matter of weeks. Now protests in Libya enter their third week, with no end in sight. Western allies must quickly decide their level of involvement with a revolt that could quickly turn into civil war. Protests once contained to streets and town squares have erupted into clashes between rebel armed forces and the military, which still supports Col. Muammar Gaddafi, for cities and regions within the country. A new government, named “Free Libya,” is headquartered in Benghazi. Libya’s second largest city now directs an uprising that has wrestled the eastern part of the country away from the control of Gaddafi, frozen the country’s oil fields, and organized an armed force that is slowly fighting toward the capital.
Libya now teeters between revolution and civil war. A revolt that began similarly to those in Tunisia and Egypt now resembles a secessionist movement. In Tunisia and Egypt, the gains made by protesters were rarely taken back; once protesters occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they did not leave until well after Mubarak resigned. The gains in Libya, however, have been far less tenable. The Libyan airforce has bombed rebel ammunition depots in Benghazi, and the military has pushed into cities around Tripoli, Libya’s capital and Gaddafi’s stronghold, hoping to create a buffer between rebel forces and direct access to the capital.
As the conflict reaches a stalemate, it resembles other civil wars that have plagued the rest of the continent. If these conflicts depict a possible model for the future of Libya should neither side concede, then a stable country across the Mediterranean from Europe may descend into a long, bitter cycle of destabilization. Many African nations have entered sustained inner-conflict without much affecting international affairs, but Libya is a major supplier of Europe’s oil and has quieted its oil drills, increased oil prices, and left countries dependent on Libyan oil, like Italy, wondering when and how the fighting will end. The revolt’s length and brutality has also created a humanitarian crisis unseen in other Arab countries’ revolutions. As Gaddafi’s forces execute any potential protesters, and the rebel government proves unable to topple the regime, thousands of Libyans flee the country to neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
Western powers have responded to this revolt as it has to other revolts, with diplomatic talks, press releases, and largely symbolic gestures indicating solidarity and support of pro-democracy protesters. The United Nations removed Libya from its Human Rights Council, citing “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” Italy suspended a 2008 nonaggression treaty with Libya, and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that the United States stands ready to offer “any type of assistance” to the rebels. But the revolution in Libya is not the same as the other riots gripping the Middle East. Col. Gaddafi is a madman who would kill every one of his citizens before conceding power. Youtube videos of bound and blindfolded men shot by police in the streets of Tripoli prove this. A portion of the nation’s military strong enough to hold onto key cities still supports his rule and will stop at nothing to keep rebels from getting their hands on the dictator.
The United States and Europe has a choice, to allow Libya to take its natural course and accept with the consequences, or directly intervene to stop a crumbling government from taking an entire nation down with it. The first steps have already been taken by the United States to exercise much-needed control over the situation. Navy warships sail along the Libyan coast and the European Union has frozen billions of dollars in Libyan assets, effectively stripping the failing regime of a large portion of its funds. But more needs to be done by the international community to make sure Libya’s future is a bright and stable one. Direct intervention is required to stop a dictator who is still convinced those in Benghazi still “love” him. Without direct intervention, the Libyan revolution may not be a revolt measured in months, but a humanitarian crisis measured in decades.