The other side of history

Which side is really the right side of history with regard to Libya? That is a question only time can really answer.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

Last Tuesday's fatal attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, ostensibly in reaction to a controversial anti-Islam film, served as a stark reminder about how volatile the post-Gaddafi situation remains in Libya.

The attack cost the lives of the US ambassador and three other diplomats, and for sheer ferocity alone it has clearly taken the world by surprise.

International condemnation was quick to follow - and rightly so, for the murders and subsequent desecration of corpses were truly a chilling sight to behold - yet few seem to have paused to consider the uncomfortable resemblance between the events of last Tuesday, and the final capitulation of Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed dictator, just under a year ago in October 2011.

Then as now, the victim of an apparent lynch mob was barbarically paraded through the streets in a grisly triumphal scene that could have been lifted straight out of a movie about the excesses of Ancient Rome.

But there was a significant difference, in that the Libyan authorities' response to Tuesday's violence was to immediately crack down on a terrorist cell and perform a number of arrests in connection with the crime - apparently under pressure from the United States, which (understandably enough) insists that justice be done on the perpetrators of the attack.

One cannot however ignore a very conspicuous discrepancy in the way the two violent incidents were handled. No calls for justice accompanied the death of Gaddafi (except by his own family, and these were duly ignored).

On the contrary, Libya's National Transitional Council at the time stubbornly refused to allow any international investigation into the incident at all, in spite of pressure by the United Nations and various human rights agencies... still less to hand over the suspects (who were all easily identifiable from video footage) to the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

This newspaper commented at the time that this form of barbarism boded ill for the immediate future of an already blood-soaked country... and Tuesday's events can only add to this prediction the uncomfortable impression of a post-dictatorship country which now risks embracing violent Islamic fundamentalism; or, worse still, disintegrating into civil strife between various (mostly tribal) factions.

Apart from Tuesday's attacks there have been other indications of increasing instability in the country: Salafist Muslims have reportedly attacked Sufi shrines, and there is also talk of widespread organised crime which the country's authorities are struggling to contain.

The irony in this reversal of fortunes is inescapable. Gaddafi's own human rights record was hardly anything to be proud of. Indeed, torture and human rights violations were rampant under his rule.

Yet this never stopped Western countries (including the United States) from fêting the flamboyant Libyan dictator in his Tripoli tent, or bending over backwards to conclude suspect trade agreements with Gaddafi's government - including at least one deal with France to provide him with nuclear energy, of all irresponsible things.

Apart from his country's oil wealth and Gaddafi's own willingness to denounce terrorism and give up his own WMD programme, there was ultimately another overriding consideration behind his eventual rehabilitation by the West.

Up until the popular uprising in late 2010, Gaddafi was more tolerated by the West than other African dictators precisely because his was a secularist regime which was viscerally opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.

This is not to say that Libya under Gaddafi was an irreligious State. Islam was still accorded quasi-national status, and many of the country's laws - for instance, its complete ban on alcohol - were ultimately religiously inspired.

But Gaddafi also repressed Islamic fundamentalist movements, of the kind that went on to seize power in other parts of the Muslim world - for instance, in Iran's 1979 revolution. This helped ingratiate him in the eyes of a United States still traumatised and bewildered by the events of September 11, 2001; and which, even now, is rumoured to be contemplating military action against Iran.

Fast-forward exactly 11 years to the day, and it now seems the spectre of Islamic terrorism has once again reared its ugly head in Libya, too... despite never having quite been an issue there before.

Paradoxically, the apparent rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Libya can be attributed in part to NATO's active support for a civil uprising that ultimately toppled a secular dictator. Matters were not helped by the astonishing proliferation of weapons, as stockpiles of arms were parachuted across the country in a conscious bid to arm local militias against Gaddafi.

NATO countries are no doubt ruing this strategy, seeing as some of the weapons used in Tuesday's attacks were almost certainly supplied by Western countries involved in last year's civil war.

For reasons of geography alone, Malta cannot afford to ignore the unfolding realities of the new Libya. And there are other more pressing reasons too - not least, massive local investments running into tens of millions of euros.

One is forcefully reminded of Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi's claim to have been 'on the right side of history' with regard to the Libyan war: a claim that may yet be fully vindicated, but which at the precise instance raises the immediate question.

Which side is really the right side of history with regard to Libya? That is a question only time can really answer.

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