To a great extent, Western fear (the real as well as the imagined) of Islamist terrorism and the fight against Al-Qaeda has been exploited repeatedly by oppressive regimes, writes Huda Seif-Gerard in an article for Robert Amsterdam.com.
By Huda Seif-Gerard
In the current surge of pro-democracy movements against the dictators of the Arab world, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime appears determined to stay in power at any cost. Using a full range of lethal force and no hesitation in violating international laws, he maintains a strong grip on Tripoli and some Western enclaves. At the same time anti-Gaddafi forces are proving themselves more determined in their effort to topple the regime by equally engaging in full armed conflict.
Libya’s case is quite different from what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. First, Gaddafi has for years built up a mythic cult of personality, and is surrounded by loyal armed followers ready to kill for him. Second, many of Gaddafi’s national armed forces have actually defected to join and defend the opposition movement. This last point made the fight for freedom from Gadhafi deadlier than others in the region. Additionally, Gadhafi’s open refusal of journalist to enter Libya has allowed most of his crimes to become unrecorded except through amateur venues. The UNSC has now unanimously approved an array of sanctions against Libya and has voted to refer Libya to the ICC. The US, the UK and the French have been very vocal of their disapproval of Gadhafi’s crimes and the former is on the verge of imposing a No Fly Zone despite the hefty cost such drastic measure may involve. The EU as a unit has yet to come up with a sold position suggesting that the EU may not yet be a viable political body but an economic one.
With the above background in mind, it is useful to ponder on the reasons behind Gaddafi’s boldness as he continues to ignore the ongoing international outcries in opposition to his criminal actions against protesters. He has defied a number of ultimatums from the UN and western powers not only in support for democracy and human rights but also seeking disassociation from the Libyan regime. At this juncture of uncertainty for dictators in the Arab world, Gaddafi and his sons (unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators) seem to boast a certain dangerous self-confidence, believing they are politically untouchable and above the fray of international pressure as well as the demands of their own people.
To fathom Gaddafi’s defiance it is helpful to start with some geopolitical junctures over the last decade and during which bilateral and international business and political deals have secured and reinforced the strength of the regime. It is also important to recall the fact that this decade of deals was proceeded by decades of isolation during which the regime had been ostracized both politically and economically by Western powers. Earlier marginalization was due to Gaddafi’s attempt to portray himself as a cult leader of the “anti-Western powers” and a revolutionary crusader for “Third World liberation.” In fulfilling this role, he committed heinous crimes of sponsoring terrorism against the very same West that has embraced him as political and economic partner during the last decade.
The substance that shifted the regime’s relations with the West may partially explain Gaddafi’s self-assuredness and current defiance of Western threats and international ultimatums. Particularly in question are the regime’s bilateral relations with Italy under Silvio Berlusconi and other deals with the EU during which it was negotiated Gaddafi to carry out certain services in the EU’s campaign against incoming refugees from troubled Sub-Saharan countries through Libya. During this period, Libyan soil was used as the space in which human rights violations occured regarding people seeking refugee in Europe. In this case Gaddafi’s notoriety as a ruthless criminal and terror leader came in handy for the EU in general and for Italy in particular. Around the same time, the major Libyan figure in the Lockerbie devastation was released to come back home to Gaddafi. In Libya, this gesture has reinforced Gaddafi’s image as a powerful man who can protect his followers no matter the charges against them.
In his recent interview with the BBC, Gaddafi may have seemed delirious, in denial, and out of touch with the reality of revolutionary events that are surrounding him. At one point the manner of Gaddafi’s gibberish and inarticulate responses to the unrelenting questions of the interviewers brought to mind the senility of Zimbabwe’s tyrant, Robert Mugabe, who is still holding on to power (and ruthlessly so beyond the retirement age of 87) in a country that is currently ravaged by AIDS and devastated by economic sanctions. Unlike Gaddafi, the case against Mugabe (especially the UK position) is not just his autocracy and denial of dignified living to millions of black Zimbabweans, but mainly because he unlawfully dispossessed close to five thousand white Zimbabwean productive farmers over the last decade and subsequently distributing their land to his unproductive inner circle.
Putting aside Gaddafi’s delusional bubble during his BBC interview, he was consistently certain and confident in his categorization of Libyan protestors as “invading Al-Qaeda” elements who had “drugged” the Libyan people, thus explaining their strange behavior. He repeated the name of the feared terror group over and over. Indeed, since the beginning of the current anti-regime masses in Libya, and before giving any interviews to any western media, Gaddafi had been resolute in condemning the protesters as definitely “elements relating to Al-Qaeda.” It’s analytically legitimate to ask why the deployment of such categorization and for what political purposes, especially in the context of him currently committing massive crimes against protesters and in order to safeguard his power.
Gaddafi is not the first world leader to brand his opponents as terrorists. His tactic of justifying tyranny and massive political crimes summons up similar tactics of demonization of critical opponents elsewhere in the region. Since the horrors of September 11, and following the West’s declaration of war on terror, naming opponents as “elements of Al-Qaeda” has become an effective modus operandi for Middle Eastern autocrats seeking not just suppression but the total annihilation of their internal political opposition or anyone else threatening their monopoly on power.
To a great extent, Western fear (the real as well as the imagined) of Islamist terrorism and the fight against Al-Qaeda has been exploited repeatedly by oppressive regimes, in turn creating more susceptible recruits for the real organization. One must fear the looming dangers in the propensity of political Islam making gains in order to cater to the desires of the economically well-off men seeking eternal paradise after life, and secondly, lure away some of the economically vulnerable youth and disenchanted dissidents in undemocratic Muslim societies. But one must also be cognizant of the fact that there has also been a continuous political hazard in the region over the past ten years of leaders who have shrewdly capitalized on this opportunity.
Since September 11, Arab Muslim tyrants have sought to annihilate legitimate political opponents and daring journalists by pointing them to the West either as direct “Al-Qaeda elements” or Islamists unsympathetic to western interests and values in the region. In doing so, they have propagated the popularly accepted myth that their entire constituency is ruthlessly anti-Western, against Israeli statehood, and disinterested in a secular, participatory model of governance.
No autocrat has benefited more from such demonization than Egypt’s deposed Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is currently struggling for political survival against the increasingly bold wrath of his people. One has yet to see any anti-Western sentiment, religious irrationality, or anti-Israel sentiments in all these revolutionary movements. Hosni Mubarak enjoyed three decades of undemocratic rule while inflicting terror on millions of Egyptians. The result was the reduction of the majority of a once-great society into dehumanizing existences surviving on under two dollars a day. For years, Mubarak had also successfully suppressed his political dissidents by labeling them as dangerous fundamentalists and in the process accrued billions of dollars under his personal and family bank accounts.
Yemen’s Saleh is another case in point. Yemen’s heavily rural and tribalist political setting has undermined the power of the modern state since its adoption in Yemen during the 1960s. Apart from main urban contexts such as Sana’a, Aden and Tai’z, remote mountainous and rural settings remain under the judiciary power of religious Sheiks and the political authority of heavily armed tribal leaders. These Sheikhs and leaders have their own prisons, administrative systems, and perceived legitimacy, and compete with the Saleh’s regime. Lack of accessibility to tribal areas has indeed hindered Saleh’s political control of close to 70 percent of the country, and forced him to succumb to their pressures through constant negotiations.
For years, tribal leaders have threatened Yemen’s big tourist industry, mainly belonging to members of Saleh’s own tribe and inner circles. His poor economic management, corruption, nepotism and lack of interest in regional equity (especially against the southern part) and fair redistribution of national wealth from oil revenues have also undermined his credibility as a leader. Saleh’s long and open brutality in suppressing political opposition (especially Yemen’s old Socialist and Ba’thist parties) and his practice of electoral fraud and using fake opposition parties have also derailed any trust in his leadership, especially among intellectuals, students, activists and women’s rights movements from the southern region of the country. Saleh was also notorious of pushing back decades of secularly based gender equality and minority rights that were achieved in South Yemen decades before it joined North Yemen to form the current Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Leaders like Mubarak, Saleh and his close circles have financially prospered under the US policy of big aid to Yemen, and from the overall war on terror policy. It is true that Yemen’s menacing and remote tribal pockets and religious elements have become conducive to providing refuge to violent Islamists from the region. But unconditional support for Saleh has indirectly helped him build a military empire that he has fiercely used to suppress competition and secure his own protection and survival as an autocrat in urban areas. With help from the U.S., Saleh has become a frightening cult figure simply because he could now point fingers at his menacing tribal opposition, legitimate political dissidents and daring journalists as “Al-Qaeda.” Saleh has even become comfortable enough to openly pursue his ambition of passing power to his son.
Feeling threatened by the ongoing demonstrations against him and sensing the shift in Western power’s priorities, Saleh no longer feels safe and is now deploying a new strategy, albeit an all too common one in the Middle East. He is now shifting and changing positions. This time he is blaming outside forces and pointing fingers at Israel as having the conspiratorial hand in creating what he sees as a chaos for dismantling the Arab world. In his last speech, Saleh declared protestors in Yemen as being instigated by Zionist ambitions. In so doing, and in this desperate moment of survival, he is now reaching out to (but not yet handing over) political Islamists in the country and beyond and tacitly calling for Jihad to save him.
Gaddafi, too, may soon insist on calling Libyan protesters as “Al-Qaeda” hoping that a frantic West will come to his rescue, or at least the rescue of 2% of the world’s oil production. When he realizes that this will not get him any support, he may soon change positions and, like Saleh, he may later reach out for Islamist fundamentalists for another shot at survival. But the sources of Gaddafi’s current defiance of Western and international ultimatums are deeper and may have different implications. If demonization of his opponents as terrorists does not win him sympathy from the West or buy him time for a new strategy, he may soon deploy another plan.
This time, as he menacingly declared earlier on at the recent EU-Africa Summit in Libya, he will challenge Europe on two counts. First he will terrorize the EU to open the floodgates of refugees from troubled African countries seeking asylum in Europe. Second he will threaten to become “the new Wikileaks” and start sharing the details of his dirty partnership with the EU and the bilateral business deals with Italy over the last few years during which Gaddafi has carried out heinous crimes against vulnerable refugees – crimes that could not have been committed both morally and legally on an EU soil but only through foreign soil and by a Mad Colonel.
If the ICC’s authority works fairly and squarely and succeeds to summon Gaddafi and his inner circles on charges of crimes against humanity, we may be looking at a long list of defendants beyond the Mad Colonel, sons and inner circles. It is difficult to predict how the Libyan crisis will end, but it does not appear that anything will be tidy.
Huda Seif-Gerard is a scholar and human rights activist currently based in Brussels. Between January 2008 and February 2010, she served as Political Advisor for the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Sudan. In 2006-2007, she also served as Governance and Gender Advisor with UNDP’s Rule of Law in Sudan. Previously she taught at George Mason University and University of Mary Washington in Virginia, USA and worked with the UN in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Zimbabwe.