Last Updated: Fri Feb 25, 2011 09:48 am (KSA) 06:48 am (GMT)

North Africa turmoil

Nicole Pope

Turkey’s swift reaction has already allowed it to repatriate more than 7,000 of the 25,000 Turkish citizens working in Libya. Other nations have since joined frenzied attempts to pull their citizens out as the security situation deteriorated in Libya, leading to a mass exodus. Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s days in power are clearly numbered, but with special troops and mercenaries still under his control, he continues to inflict a heavy casualty toll on his own long-suffering population.

Libyan protesters, like their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts who had launched their own bid for freedom, hope that a more democratic regime will emerge from this painful transition. The fall of autocratic leaders is obviously to be celebrated, but it does not necessarily bring an immediate solution to the social and economic problems these countries are facing. With no organized opposition and civil society all but nonexistent after 42 years of dictatorship, Libya may take a while to reach stability.

Autocratic, power-mad and erratic, Col. Gaddafi was no one’s favorite leader but as the head of an oil-rich country, he was simply too important to be ignored. Thus Britain hurriedly cancelled export licenses for security equipment to Bahrain and Libya last week fearing some of the bullets and tear gas rained on the protesters was of British origin.

It was of course not the only country left with egg on its face as the extent of Gaddafi’s ruthlessness became apparent. According to WikiLeaks, while the Libyan leader was frequently railing against imperialist America, his son was quietly seeking to buy US equipment for the Khamis Brigade commanded by his son.

The Muammar Gaddafi prize for human rights bestowed by the dictator on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his 2010 visit to Tripoli probably does not command pride of place on the Turkish leader’s mantelpiece, but it reflect ties based on mutual interest, bolstered by significant commercial activity and construction deals.

The birth-pangs of a new Libya, and perhaps a new Arab world, are likely to be felt not just in the countries concerned but in the greater Mediterranean and indeed across Europe. Controversial though Gaddafi was, he and other autocratic leaders of North Africa have proved good allies of the EU, helping control the flow of illegal migrants in exchange for funding. When Gaddafi recently threatened to withdraw his support, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs head, announced the EU would not give in to blackmail, but his regime no longer controls all of Libya’s 2,000 kilometers of coastline and will probably have power over none of it very soon.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini predicted his country might be overrun by vast numbers of migrants from North Africa. Italy, as Libya’s first trading partner, is among countries that stand to lose most from the change of power. But while it may be exaggerating the threat, 5,000 migrants, mainly from Tunisia, arrived on the island of Lampedusa in one week.

The tiny island of Malta also fears a wave of arrivals while Greece, largely bankrupt and in the throes of major unrest of its own, has also been struggling with a growing influx, which could get worse once the Libya dam bursts. EU officials talk of an exodus of up to 750,000 Libyans.

Although religion seems to have played little or no part in the demonstrations that have swept through the three north African nations since the beginning of this year, the Italian foreign minister has been making alarmist predictions, warning of a possible “Islamic Arab Emirate at the borders of Europe,” thus ignoring the democratic aspirations of the demonstrators.

Will the EU seize the opportunities offered by the momentous changes taking place in the Arab world to export its democratic blueprint or will it be blinded by migration concerns and Islamophobia? If fortress Europe merely battens down the hatches, rather than engaging with and helping emerging nations develop democratic governance and boost their economic opportunities, unrest and instability are likely to last longer. The situation could offer Turkey, which is not immune to migration flows and also needs stability in the region, a chance to cooperate constructively with the EU and give new momentum to its accession process. But before rebuilding can begin, Libya must first stop the carnage and get rid of its dictator.


*Published in Turkey's TODAY ZAMAN on Feb.25.

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