On Oct. 21, 2011, almost every news channel I turned to was covering two things: the announcement that former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had been killed in a firefight and Obama’s speech outlining the American withdrawal from Iraq.
Aside from their geographic proximity, these two things seem like they have little to do with one another, but as I watched the Libyans celebrate I was reminded of a similar celebration from eight years ago — the much maligned one where George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Each time the pair of images flashed past — Libya, Iraq — the parallels became more evident. Then I started to make more associations: Egypt and Tunisia mainly.
Each of these countries has undergone a revolution recently, and we should be looking to and learning from the mistakes of NATO in Afghanistan and the “Coalition of the Willing” — the U.S. and British led forces that spearheaded the removal of Saddam Hussein — in Iraq now that Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are in a fragile post-dictatorial state. Unfortunately I think we’re going down the same road, and the joy of revolution will soon turn into the pain of sectarian violence and faux democracies.
Just look to Egypt.
The military in Egypt is loved. Not only because they refused to take up arms against the revolutionaries during the January protests, but also because military service is required in Egypt — practically everyone knows someone who has served or is serving.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the military in Egypt is one of the largest producers of goods in the country — a byproduct of the redistribution of thousands of soldiers into the manufacturing industry after peace with Israel broke out.
Despite this relationship, post-revolution Egypt, led by the military, is hardly the bastion of Middle East freedom and tolerance that many of the revolutionaries were fighting for.
Sectarian violence against groups like the Coptic Christians has been prominent in the news since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, and the military has arrested hundreds if not thousands of people in the months following the revolution, subjecting them to military trials — perhaps out of fear that there will be a second revolution, directed against the military.
From the perspective of an outside observer, things in Egypt seem to be little better — if not worse — under the thumb of the military, than they were under Mubarak.
Maybe things will be better after November’s elections, but I have to wonder if an organization that helped Egypt’s former dictator maintain power for more than 30 years will give it up so easily. My gut says “no.”
At the end of the day, though, Egypt is not our responsibility. The people of that country overthrew Mubarak without Western help, and what they choose to do within their own borders is none of our concern.
Libya is a different story, however.
Without NATO airstrikes and weapons it is unclear whether the rebels would have won their conflict. We helped liberate the Libyan people, and now we’re getting ready to walk away. This is a mistake.
What is going to happen to the people who supported Gadhafi’s regime, or even those who simply refused to take up arms? Are the battle-hardened rebels willing to start anew, or will their anger be turned towards those who stood against them?
It is too soon to tell, but the threat should be enough to convince NATO that their mission is not accomplished. A Western presence might just be enough of an incentive for the rebels to forgive and forget . . . but without it the country could be plunged into years of brutal sectarian violence.
We got involved for the benefit of the Libyan people and to leave now would be shirking our responsibilities, but I fear that political and economic pressures will be enough to justify our departure.
We talk about the desire for a stable Middle East, but now that we’re closer than ever it seems like our resolve is faltering. How will the people still under the yoke of unelected leaders interpret our lack of resolve and the results of earlier revolutions?
The Arab Spring could bring a new age of stability to our planet. I just hope that our inability to commit in the long-term doesn’t condemn these people just as they’re within striking distance of true freedom.