Libya poses policy challenge to Asian giants

Change by any pos­si­ble means is the name of the game in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

An offer to assist Libya with its post-Qad­hafi recon­struc­tion and reha­bil­i­ta­tion cou­pled with India’s remain­ing days as pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil and an invi­ta­tion to attend this week’s Friends of Libya con­fer­ence in Paris enable India to turn the page in its some­what trou­bled rela­tions with North Atlantic Treaty Organ­i­sa­tion (NATO)-backed rebels poised to form the North African country’s new government. 

The oppor­tu­ni­ty aris­es as India along­side Chi­na, Rus­sia, Brazil and South Africa – the five Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers that did not sup­port the impo­si­tion last March of a no-fly zone in Libya and NATO’s bomb­ing cam­paign — finds itself forced to rethink its approach towards embat­tled Arab auto­crat­ic lead­ers in the wake of the rebels’ takeover of the Libyan cap­i­tal of Tripoli. 

Chi­na and Rus­sia scram­bled last week to improve their ties with the rebel Tran­si­tion Nation­al Coun­cil (TNC) in a bid to sal­vage com­mer­cial ties and oppor­tu­ni­ties in post-Qad­hafi Libya. Libya may be their most imme­di­ate con­cern as the TNC asserts its author­i­ty in the coun­try, but India like Chi­na, Rus­sia and the oth­ers, is cer­tain to debate the impli­ca­tions of Mr. Qadhafi’s fall in its pol­i­cy towards oth­er embat­tled Arab lead­ers, first and fore­most Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad. 

Alarm bells rang out last week in the Chi­nese and Russ­ian cap­i­tals after Abdel­jalil May­ouf, a man­ag­er of the rebel-con­trolled Ara­bi­an Gulf Oil Com­pa­ny (AGOCO) warned that Chi­na, Rus­sia and Brazil, in con­trast to West­ern nations, could face polit­i­cal obsta­cles in revert­ing back to busi­ness as usu­al once Mr. Qad­hafi has been removed from pow­er. Mr. May­ouf did not men­tion India, but there is no doubt that in his view, it falls into the same cat­e­go­ry as Chi­na, Rus­sia and Brazil. 

To be sure, Mr. May­ouf rep­re­sents only one strand of think­ing among the rebels, who have agreed to French Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy invit­ing India along with the oth­er four recal­ci­trant Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers to the Paris con­fer­ence to dis­cuss sup­port for the TNC

For­eign assis­tance is cru­cial as the TNC faces the daunt­ing task of enforc­ing law and order; pre­vent­ing fur­ther acts of revenge and ret­ri­bu­tion; pro­vid­ing basic ser­vices such as water, elec­tric­i­ty, food and fuel; reviv­ing oil exports and kick-start­ing the econ­o­my while at the same time hunt­ing down Mr. Qad­hafi and gain­ing con­trol of Qad­hafi strong­holds such as his home­town of Sirte. 

The exer­cise is like­ly to pro­vide India and oth­ers in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty a tem­plate for sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions that are cer­tain to arise as anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep the Mid­dle East and North Africa, par­tic­u­lar­ly as pro­test­ers’ resolve in Syr­ia and in Yemen is boost­ed by events in Libya and oppo­si­tion groups seek to emu­late the Libyan mod­el of form­ing a unit­ed lead­er­ship that effec­tive­ly serves as a government-in-waiting. 

Syr­ia is prob­a­bly next in line with pro­test­ers dis­play­ing the kind of resilience and per­se­ver­ance that has ren­dered Mr. Assad’s five-month old bru­tal crack­down a fail­ure. As west­ern sanc­tions par­tic­u­lar­ly of Syria’s oil sec­tor start to kick in, the ques­tion no longer is if but when Mr. Assad will be forced out of office. India along­side Chi­na and Rus­sia is like­ly to want to ensure that it main­tains some kind of con­struc­tive rela­tion­ship with the forces like­ly to suc­ceed the Syr­i­an leader. 

Com­men­ta­tors have been quick to note that Asia’s com­mer­cial inter­ests in Libya are lim­it­ed and are like­ly to in good time assert the same with regard to Syr­ia. India’s inter­ests in Libya are vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent while Chi­na relied last year on Libya for only three per cent of its crude imports but had to evac­u­ate from Libya 36,000 work­ers employed by 75 pri­mar­i­ly State-owned Chi­nese com­pa­nies ear­li­er this year. 

Yet, even if com­mer­cial ties with Libya and Syr­ia are rel­a­tive­ly minis­cule, there is a lot more at stake for India and oth­er Asian nations not only in the three coun­tries whose auto­crat­ic lead­ers were top­pled this year, i.e. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but across the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Beyond chanc­ing that their com­pa­nies will be at a dis­ad­van­tage in com­pet­ing for lucra­tive post-rev­o­lu­tion con­tracts, they risk neg­a­tive per­cep­tions in a region in which mil­lions are close­ly mon­i­tor­ing events in Libya and Syr­ia and are like­ly to be rein­vig­o­rat­ed by the demise of Mr. Qadhafi. 

Mr. Qadhafi’s fall was pre­ced­ed by peace­ful mass protests that forced the Pres­i­dents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign ear­li­er this year. The griev­ances that have pro­pelled the rebel­lion in Libya and the protests in Syr­ia, Tunisia and Egypt are shared with the pop­u­la­tion of a swath of land that stretch­es from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf. Change by hook or by crook is like­ly to be the name of the game for the next decade in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, a region that is strate­gic because of its geog­ra­phy, ener­gy resources and the finan­cial clout of its oil producers. 

No doubt, the strug­gle for greater polit­i­cal free­dom and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty is like­ly to be pro­tract­ed and bloody and the tran­si­tion towards more open soci­eties messy at best. In a region in which the strug­gle to get rid of the yoke of dic­ta­tor­ship faces the con­stant threat of sec­tar­i­an and trib­al strife, India with its mosa­ic of eth­nic and reli­gious groups cohab­it­ing in a democ­ra­cy and its long-stand­ing ties to parts of the Mid­dle East has much to offer. 

That is most imme­di­ate­ly true in Libya where the TNC has to quick­ly move from the rebel cap­i­tal of Beng­hazi in the east of the coun­try to Tripoli in a demon­stra­tive ges­ture of its tak­ing con­trol of the coun­try and a city of two mil­lion that is with­out polit­i­cal lead­er­ship or direc­tion. With no run­ning water in Tripoli because sup­ply from aquifers in the desert has been dis­rupt­ed by the fight­ing and bare­ly any elec­tric­i­ty, the TNC has already promised to imme­di­ate­ly start dis­trib­ut­ing 30,000 tons of gaso­line as well as diesel fuel for pow­er stations. 

In a coun­try, in which in his 42 years in pow­er Mr. Qad­hafi ensured that no insti­tu­tions devel­oped that could chal­lenge his author­i­ty, the TNC and its elect­ed suc­ces­sor will need sub­stan­tial sup­port in build­ing a more open, trans­par­ent soci­ety from scratch. Iraq, which was wracked by sec­tar­i­an vio­lence and frat­ri­cide after the 2003 fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein, has served as an exam­ple of how not to do it. Those lessons are reflect­ed in the TNC’s blue­print for the future, which out­lines a 20-month timetable for the tran­si­tion as well as pro­ce­dures to ensure that the process is transparent. 

Like the rebels, Mr. Qad­hafi too appears to have drawn inspi­ra­tion from Iraq’s exam­ple. He allowed his cap­i­tal to fall, ensured his escape and vowed to wage an insur­gency. Hus­sein fled to his home­town of Tikrit where he exploit­ed his successor’s poli­cies to fuel sec­tar­i­an strife. Mr. Qadhafi’s where­abouts remain a mys­tery and it is not clear whether he has returned to Sirte. Unlike Hus­sein, Mr. Qad­hafi has no pow­er­ful neigh­bours on whose sup­port he will be able to rely. As a result, Mr. Qadhafi’s final stand could prove to be a less bloody and wrench­ing bat­tle than that of Hus­sein and his associates. 

For India like for Chi­na and Rus­sia, the chal­lenge is to devel­op mid­dle rather than short-term poli­cies that enable it to cap­i­talise on polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties amid ini­tial chaos and insta­bil­i­ty. Tran­si­tion in Syr­ia is like­ly to prove as messy as it is in Libya. 

It took five months of blood­shed in Syr­ia for India and the oth­er Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil hold­outs to endorse con­dem­na­tion of Mr. Assad’s crack­down and then only in the weak­est pos­si­ble form because of their con­cern that it could lead to for­eign mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion. Syr­i­ans, unlike Libyans, oppose for­eign mil­i­tary aid and have so far insist­ed that they do not want to move from peace­ful to armed resistance. 

This should make it eas­i­er for India, if not for Rus­sia and Chi­na, to get on the right side of his­to­ry. Doing so does not require a polit­i­cal U‑turn but would mean a more force­ful stand against the bru­tal­i­ty of an embat­tled leader that does not give him an effec­tive license to bru­tal­ly crack­down on pro­test­ers by effec­tive­ly block­ing an inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus. Libya offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty for coun­tries like India to demon­strate that their heart is in the right place. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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