Zehra Zaidi was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England at the 2009 elections and has been a development consultant on governance and democratisation for UNICEF and the British Council. She has also acted as an adviser to Andrew Mitchell, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
I was too young to remember much of my early childhood in Libya. But behind my parents’ colourful accounts of Libyan life was the one underlying “truth” about life for ordinary Libyans: Muammar Gaddafi’s rule was absolute. Growing up, you feel nostalgia for places your family has lived and loved. However even as a child, whenever you would tilt your head forward after hearing the word Libya uttered, the second word you often heard was sadly terrorism. That terrorism has now engulfed the country as the regime turns on its people in the most brutal manner. Ironic really, that the full name of this country is the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (or ‘state of the masses’).
Regimes around the Middle East are crumbling like ruined towers. This is not a political earthquake. It is a veritable tsunami. After forty years in power, Gaddafi will eventually go. But time is not a luxury ordinary Libyans have as they are flattened by the brutal response of its regime. More than 400 people have died in five days. Reports have come through of military aircraft or paid mercenaries targeting protestors with a shoot to kill policy. This slaughter must end.
The signs are that the regime will eventually be flung out; whether it be defections of military personal or resignations of Libyan diplomats around the globe. At some point tribal leaders and increasing elements of the military will feel compelled to side with the people. Libya’s regime will fall. But unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Libya has very little infrastructure that would support an easy transition – there are no political parties, little civil society. Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya has only had one point of influence for the last forty years. The vacuum that will be created may prove tumultuous. Whilst I do not think any of Gaddafi’s sons would have a viable claim to succeed him (not now anyway), the tribal and ethnic tensions may spark yet more civil unrest.
As countries like Libya crack down in a desperate attempt to cling on to power, the regimes that might eventually follow might be much, much worse. In Libya, this is a secular uprising but in other countries, years of political suppression only risk feeding extremists.
What happens, however, if Gaddafi hangs on for now? However admirable, it may not be enough for the international community to solely condemn this despot’s actions, however strong the language. Gaddafi does not care. Libya has already warned the EU that it will stop cooperating over illegal immigration. Gaddafi will not care how he clings on to power; only that he must. Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, after all, declared that the regime would fight protesters to the last bullet. Well, bullets are raining down on its people like a beating monsoon. Reports have surfaced in the papers that Gaddafi might have fled. Never. In Gaddafi’s eyes, this will be a fight to the death.
What the international community can do is limit the death and suffering. This regime, with its dismal international and human rights record, is owed no grace period. The Security Council must move now fast to secure a no fly zone over Libya, patrolled by NATO jets, and cordons established where humanitarian aid can filter through. There is capacity to do so with armed forces of various countries in range.
With every flashpoint, every crisis, and every regime collapse, the stakes are being raised. This crisis has gone viral. It is an unreal situation and the media cannot update news fast enough. Regimes across the Middle East will be glancing at the events unfolding with apprehension – where next? This crisis could have been stemmed a long time ago with genuine constitutional reform and a respect for human rights. They still might be, but whether such moves are seen as a sign of weakness or strength by the local population of that country is anyone’s guess. However, reform – even if reform led by a level of self interest – will still be preferable to the upheaval we are currently witnessing.
At some point, I do wonder whether those transfixed by the domino collapse of governments across the Middle East will sit quite so easily when governments are threatened that are crucial for the global economy? Libya is the first oil rich country to be affected – we are no longer simply watching political upheaval on our television screens but will feel its effects every time we visit a petrol station. Brent crude oil prices have hiked to almost $108 a barrel for the first time since 2008. The only way is up if this crisis continues to spread. The global economy is fragile and this really would be the last thing that is needed. But, whilst the economic case is building, the moral case for some sort of humanitarian intervention is deafening.
What is happening in Libya is slaughter. The international community must act now.