Libya is now at the point which is most dangerous in revolutions. It’s not just the contesting claims for power between the rebel forces from Benghazi, Misrata and the mountainous west of the country, it’s even more the intrusion of foreign powers looking for their reward for their close involvement at every stage in the upraising. Originally there were to be no Nato boots on the ground, then it would just be special forces, then close British-French air support not just protecting civilians but decimating Gadaffi’s armoury and keeping open the crucial coast road, and now British troops may be deployed to ‘help keep order’. A massive total of 20,000 bombing missions plus huge arms supplies and massive logistical support, Western intelligence fully engaged in planning and co-ordinating rebel operations, funding the Transitional National Council, and Nato drawing up the stabilisation plan for post-Gadaffi governance – all this is not expended without a clear objective of gain. This is where the danger of takeover of the revolution lies.
Libya holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa as well as significant reserves of natural gas. When BP returned to the country in 2007 after Gadaffi’s rapprochement with the West in 2005, it obtained BP’s single biggest exploration and production agreement initially worth nearly $1bn. Shell had already signed its own $200m gas exploration deal when sanctions on Libya were lifted in 2004. As many as 35 foreign oil and gas companies are now active In the country, including several national oil companies from Nato member states.
Of course the Libyan intervention has been justified under the provision for ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P as it is known in UN jargon) civilian populations from mass atrocities as adopted by the UN’s 2005 world summit. That comes with two caveats. First, the provision can be, and is, stretched out of all recognition by extensive mission creep. Second, the decision to intervene is taken according to the political and strategic interests of those prepared to commit their armed forces, while other equally pressing human rights crises go untouched.
The payback for this foreign investment is now where the Libyan revolution is heading. This is not just oil and gas but also other big commercial deals, as well as significant political gains. The aim will be to secure Libya fully for the Nato powers and even to provide a base for Western operations to influence the course of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. There will certainly be pressure too for the return of the military bases from which Western forces were kicked out by Gadaffi in the 1970s.
The issue for the Arab spring is this: is this a genuine recovery of democratic sovereignty for the Libyan and other Arab peoples or merely a new configuration of Western pressures overseeing and guiding the economic and political reconstruction of countries in the Middle East in which the Western powers retain, undiminished, an intense, close and unhealthy interest?