March 2, 2011, Special to ‘The Bengal Post’

by Praful Bidwai

Col Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruthless ruler since 1969, faces an unprecedented popular revolt and could soon join Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the rogues’ gallery of the Arab world’s deposed rulers. Gaddafi has had strong South Asia connections. A famous stadium in Lahore is named after him—thanks to a big donation. During the Janata regime in India, George Fernandes fervently advocated that India should transfer nuclear technology to Libya. That didn’t happen.

Libya then became an enthusiastic customer of the Pakistan-based AQ Khan network, which supplied uranium centrifuge designs and enrichment plant components to countries like Iran and North Korea. By 1997, Libya had ordered from Khan 10,000 centrifuges—enough to make up to 10 bombs a year—, and designs for an enrichment plant.

Gaddafi’s nuclear ambitions received a decisive setback in late 2003 when Anglo-American investigators, acting on a tip, intercepted a Libya-bound ship and found nuclear equipment from the Khan network on board. By December, Gaddafi was in panic. The Lockerbie bombing sanctions were biting. Saddam Hussein had just been captured in Iraq. Gaddafi announced he was giving up his nuclear weapons programme. Soon, Libya handed over its centrifuge and weapons blueprints to US and British officials. These were contained in a plastic bag bearing the name of Khan’s tailor in Islamabad. The secret was out. The rest is history. Soon, the Americans took away Gaddafi’s centrifuges.

Gaddafi is now trying to suppress peaceful protests by unleashing savage repression, killing over 1,000 people. He maligns the protesters as drug addicts, radical Islamists and American agents. He threatens: “Libya will burn.” Gaddafi’s rants merely proved he’s desperate. The opposition forces are closing in on Tripoli. Gaddafi’s exit seems imminent.

However, the post-Gaddafi transition won’t be easy. Libya has no political parties, trade unions or civil society organisations. But it’s Africa’s third-largest oil producer and has the continent’s biggest proven oil reserves. So, the Western powers, led by the US, are propping up groups which will pursue a pro-West oil policy. The US is mobilising planes and ships close to Libya. Neoconservatives are urging President Obama to militarily intervene there.

Such “humanitarian” appeals weren’t made when Israel invaded Gaza in 2009. Nor are they being made in respect of the pro-US dictatorships of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. Libya’s opposition has rejected external intervention.

Libya is marked by strong, distinct tribal identities. The loyalty of Gaddafi’s own tribe, Al-Gaddafa, one of 15 major groupings, will be crucial to his survival. He will finally rely on his well-armed Revolutionary Guard Corps, drawn primarily from his tribe. But its loyalty could prove fickle.

Gaddafi’s Libya is a sordid case of mis-governance and repressive rule. The dictator gained some credibility early on when he deposed King Idris, nationalised oil, and promoted pan-Arab and pan-African solidarity. But he has squandered it. Despite the oil wealth, one-third of Libyans are unemployed. Capitalist Neoliberal globalisation has impoverished people. Yet, Gaddafi recently became a favourite of the US which saw him as “a strong partner in the war against terrorism”.

Gaddafi’s exit will send a signal to authoritarian Arab governments: reliance on brute force cannot ensure regime survival. It’s best to negotiate a transition to a broad-based government while it’s still possible. But that’s becoming increasingly difficult in most countries in West Asia-North Africa, which have seen protests ignited by popular aspirations for democracy and accountable governance, for food security and employment, and for modernisation of society and politics.

The mould of backwardness in which Arab rulers had cast their societies for decades is breaking up. There is a great urge for freedom, liberation from despotism, and an open society.

Some people, especially in the West, fear that Islamist radicals like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and even al-Qaeda, would gain the most if existing Arab regimes are toppled.

This fear is grossly exaggerated. The Brotherhood is a relatively moderate, non-violent organisation. It was only one of four components of the anti-Mubarak movement—the others being the youth, the radical Left, and a middle class disaffected with economic uncertainty. The Brotherhood didn’t try to take over the movement, but worked with a coalition, of which former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed El Baradei is the foremost leader.

Al-Qaeda has played absolutely no role in the opposition movements in the Arab world, despite Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring many Arab dictators, including Mubarak, un-Islamic and Western puppets for years. Al-Qaeda’s failure to instigate militancy and religious fanaticism spells a strategic defeat for its jehadi ideology.

The challenge before the popular revolts is how to bring about a transition to a radical democracy which empowers people. This is an unfinished task, even in Egypt. The army still rules there. It hasn’t yet revoked the state of emergency, freed political prisoners, or announced elections to a constituent assembly.

How the transition to radical democracy in the Arab world will occur remains unclear. But hopefully, movements there will inspire similar aspirations and struggles outside the region—just as social movements did in Latin America during the past decade.

Even if status quo-ist forces abort the transition to participatory democracy, the movements’ demands, aspirations and mobilisation methods will stay. The waves generated by demonstrations, strikes, self-defence committees and other popular mobilisations will resonate in every country hit by globalisation, the recent explosion in food prices, and rising unemployment. The Arab world could become the midwife of great changes across the globe.