By Modibo Goita
Arab revolutions have caused regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, violent uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. These dramatic recent events in the Arab world have generated speculation among experts regarding ramifications for the Arab world, Israel, Africa and NATO.
I believe the winners thus far are the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan peoples who gained the sovereign right to choose their rulers. The triumphant Islamic parties still have to fulfill the people’s expectations and succeed where their predecessors failed for centuries. We know that democracy cannot be built overnight.
The Arab League appears to be a winner even as it has exercised a double standard. On the one hand, it initiated a no-fly zone over Libya, requested United Nations intervention and supported Security Council resolution 1973 authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians there. On the other, in Syria the Arab League reacted more softly —though this constitutes huge progress when compared to the League’s silence after the Hama crackdown of 1982 — and in Bahrain it failed completely to condemn the repression.
The new rulers emerging from the revolutions will sooner or later reveal their approach to the issue of peace in the Middle East. Certainly, Israel must revise its position and give peace a new opportunity. Meanwhile, it is both a winner and a loser. Having lost its alliance with Turkey, it may now lose Egypt. But a potential civil war in Syria and the army’s breakup there would tilt the balance of forces overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor to a greater extent than at any time since 1967. Hence any new ruler in Damascus will resume negotiations with Israel over return of the Golan Heights from a fragile position.
For the countries of the Sahel, the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi generated a threat. This has taken the form of proliferation of weapons from Gaddafi-era arms depots and the forced return of Sahel nationals after accusations of mercenary activities and torture by anti-Gaddafi fighters. Some former members of the Libyan army armed with heavy weapons have infiltrated Sahel states like Mali.
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, “the Libyan arsenal has provided enough weapons to arm the entire African continent.” Imagine man-portable missiles falling into the hands of terrorist groups in the Sahel. This concern led Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure to declare that the “Arab spring will bring a burning summer for the region.” Indeed, the entire Sahel region could now be destabilized.
For many Africans, leaders and others, Gaddafi’s death meant the loss of a prodigal friend. Such was Gaddafi’s financial largesse that even the famous London School of Economics received a donation from the foundation of his son, Saif al-lslam (that has now cast doubt over the way he got his PhD). African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping ironically asked, “who has not got money from [Gaddafi]?” Full disclosure of the beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s huge gifts would cause considerable surprise.
In Mali’s capital, demonstrators have expressed support for Gaddafi and a special prayer service was held in his memory. He is remembered by many as an Arab leader who invested billions of West African CFA francs and sustained more than 3,000 Islamic schools and mosques.
The African Union appears to be a big loser vis-a-vis the Arab revolutions because it failed to condemn violent repression in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. It sought instead to act as a neutral mediator, only to see its peace plan turned down by the Libyan National Transitional Council. Meanwhile Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement supported the United Nations’ position. It is easy to explain this gap in communication: Gaddafi was one of the founders of the AU and contributed almost 15 percent of its budget. His death will certainly mark the end of his “United States of Africa” project. Even more deplorable is the AU silence over the ill-treatment inflicted on African migrants after Gaddafi’s fall.
I expect that African defense experts learned something from NATO’s performance in Libya. The NATO states demonstrated their military capacity (executing more than 26,000 sorties) to intervene outside Europe. As French Minister of the Interior Claude Gueant acknowledged, in providing intelligence and weapons to rebels and putting Gaddafi’s convoy at their mercy, NATO’s actions even exceeded its UN mandate.
The military lesson is that poorly-equipped and ill-trained armies are no match against air supremacy in modern warfare. Accordingly, Algeria will probably now better defend its strategic interests within the framework of its collective security agreement with Mali, Mauritania and Niger, take the offensive and exercise the right of hot pursuit as agreed among the members. Moreover, Algeria and Morocco must now find a way to cooperate in order better to confront the threat of chaos emerging from their southern flank. Otherwise, they both must prepare to encounter unavoidable foreign intervention.
The political lessons to be learned by the leader of a developing country — a non-nuclear state that has failed to satisfy the basic needs of its population — are, first, that African youth can erupt like a volcano and, second, that threatening to wipe out your own population or annihilate that of another state will trigger the international responsibility to protect endangered civilians.
Modibo Goita is a professor at the Peacekeeping School in Bamako, Mali. The positions presented here are personal and represent no official point of view. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org