The Libyan lesson

By Guo Xiangang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, April 5, 2012
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Peace call: A girl waves a rainbow flag for peace during a rally in Rome against Western military intervention in Libya on April 2, 2011 [Wang Qingqin]

On March 19, 2011, France launched the first air assault on Libya, starting the half-year-long armed intervention led by NATO in the North African country. With the strong support of the West, the rebels eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled Libya for over 40 years.

The war caused more than 20,000 casualties in a country with a population of only 6 million and made 700,000 Libyans refugees. Although it led to the fall of the embattled Gaddafi regime, the war has not brought expected positive changes to Libya. As its negative aftermath continues to take a toll on the country, prospects for a prosperous, stable and united Libya remain dim.

Domestic chaos

Religious extremist forces that were suppressed for a long time again became active in Libya after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Facing the increasing expansion of religious forces, the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's new government, said the new Constitution should be drafted on the basis of Islamic classics. It even suggested reinstating the polygamy system that was abolished by Gaddafi, arousing the opposition of many Libyans and the discontent of the West. Western countries complained that they had helped a conservative religious regime, to which the West is strongly opposed.

Under these circumstances, the NTC claimed that the emerging religious groups are moderates, and religious extremists are not widely representative in Libya. The NTC had to play the role of a coordinator between religious groups at home and the West to satisfy the demands of the religious groups and ease the anger of Western allies.

Religion's influence on politics has been enormously weakened in the modern era. Theocratic rule has become increasingly unpopular. Recent developments in postwar Libya that run counter to this trend have posed serious challenges to the new government. The NTC faces the daunting task of leading Libyan reconstruction, including drafting a modern Constitution and establishing a political system that separates religion from politics.

Similarly, Islamist political parties achieved success in elections in Egypt and Tunisia after their former regimes were overthrown. Yemen's religious extremists even announced they would found their own Islamic emirate. The West had not expected religious forces would rapidly emerge following the turmoil in the Middle East. This is the last thing that it wants to see in the region.

Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has fallen into divided status. Cyrenaica in east Libya announced on March 6 it would seek autonomy. While nominally obeying the order of the NTC in diplomatic and defense affairs, it vowed to establish its own armed forces.

Misrata, the third largest city in Libya, also prepared to establish self-government. The Misrata Government elected in February has taken many measures to control the population flows of the region.

The NTC strongly opposes all forms of self-government in Libya. At the same time, residents in Tripoli and Benghazi took to the streets to protest separation. They know clearly that demands for autonomy would lead to the split of the country or even a civil war. If the NTC fails to control the country and build a stable central government, the break-up of Libya seems inevitable.

Actually, many places in Libya had been governed by local tribes until Gaddafi launched a coup and overthrew King Idris in 1969. Although Gaddafi did not reform the outdated tribal system, Libya maintained unity under his rule. Many Libyans did not like Gaddafi, but they want to see their country fractured. Now that the strongman is gone, how to safeguard national unity has become a pressing concern.

Economic backlash

The West did not gain any benefits from the war except the killing of Gaddafi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the most active Western leader during the intervention, intended to use the war to bolster his popularity ahead of the presidential election. But he did not receive the expected support of the French people due largely to the economic downturn and rising unemployment.

According to the latest survey, unemployment in France reached 2.84 million in 2011, the highest since 1999. In his 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy vowed to reduce unemployment to 5 percent. But in the third quarter of 2011, French unemployment reached 9.3 percent and showed no sign of decreasing in the long run. It is expected that the number would be 10.7 percent in 2012. The French presidential election will begin in April. Sarkozy has no time to fulfill his promise.

Although there are many causes for France's high unemployment, the huge cost of intervention in Libya has hurt the prospects for an economic recovery. War is a money-burning machine. Operations in Libya cost France at least 300 million euros ($400 million). The money should have been spent to address its fiscal problems.

In 2011, France's debt reached 1.75 trillion euros ($2.33 trillion), accounting for 87 percent of the country's GDP. The budget deficit of the French Government accounted for 5.7 percent of the GDP, which exceeded the upper limit of 3 percent required by the EU. In view of the facts, international credit rating organizations downgraded France's sovereign rating earlier this year.

Italy, which followed France in the intervention, also suffered economically. As it spent millions of euros on the war, its economic stagnation and unemployment deteriorated. In January, the Italian unemployment rate reached 9.2 percent, the highest since 2004. Around 2.31 million people lost their jobs. By November last year, Italy's debt had increased to 1.9 trillion euros ($2.54 trillion), 1.2 times its GDP. Also, the budget deficit of the Italian Government reached 3.9 percent of the GDP. Like France, Italy has also seen its sovereign rating lowered by international credit rating agencies.

The military intervention has failed to make an immediate positive impact on conflict-ridden Libya or deliver benefits to Western countries as they expected. Instead of helping resolve a country's problems, outside interference often backfires to the benefit of no one. This is one of the lessons learned from Libya.

The author is vice president of the China Institute of International Studies


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