Gaddafi Plays the Islamist Card… Repeatedly

21 March 2011


Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi

When social instability began to manifest itself in Libya, Col. Gaddadfi, immediately worried now that the events of Tunisia and Egypt were on his doorstep, publicly claimed that Al Qaeda was behind the social unrest, presumably sending in agents provocateurs to destabilize Libya. I can’t recall how explicitly he made the connection, but it was obvious that what he was saying was that, “The West needs me in power here to keep things stable; if I go, then Libya, and its oil, may come under Islamist control.”

Col. Gaddafi’s warnings went unheeded. Indeed, no one in the West (in so far as I am aware) took the bait. So far. But that could change.

Col. Gaddafi continued to issue similarly confused and incoherent warnings, at times verging on mere rantings, and no one (in the West) listened. Of course, his confusion and incoherency are not at issue. He still has regime cronies and those who have tied themselves to closely to Gaddafi’s rule that they could not survive in a post-Gaddafi Libya, and they know it. This is the continuing source of Gaddafi’s staying power. As long as he still has loyal soldiers who are willing to kill on behalf of his continued rule, he can continue the fight.

Now that Western dithering over whether or not to help the rebels came to a sudden and surprising end with a resolution from the UN Security Council authorizing forces operating under UN authority to, “take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

I was surprised by the UN Security Council resolution. I also think it was a mistake. This makes it look like it takes the fight out of the hands of the rebels and places it in the hands of those flying the sorties over Libya. It is almost incomprehensible to me that alternatives short of a “no fly” zone were not pursued. Specifically, shipments of arms to the rebels as well as intelligence and organizational assistance, which would place the rebels in a heroic role of fighting against superior forces — which they could do effectively with the latest anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. But we have the “no fly” zone instead, and now that is the context in which the Libyan civil war will take place. It is also the context for the next shift in Gaddafi’s rhetoric.

Having failed to convince the Western powers that they needed him right where he was at, Gaddafi has now executed a 180 degree turn in the midst of his civil war and is trying to turn it into a holy war. That’s right. Gaddafi, the secular dictator (like Saddam Hussein), and a man whose Pan-Arabist and Pan-Africanist vision is far more indebted to Nassar than to Sayyid Qtub or Ayman al-Zawahiri, is now attempting to assume the mantle of Islamism for himself and his regime.

In recent statements Gaddafi has said, “We will die as martyrs,” and made reference to the “Christian Crusade,” and has invoked all the hot button issues of the region to try to stir up Islamist sentiment for his own benefit. Will it work? No one in the West was listening before, and no one in the West is likely to be listening now. The previous intended target of Gaddafi’s statements was the West, whom he warned of the possibility of Islamist elements taking control in Tripoli, but now the intended target of his statements are the Islamists themselves, their sympathizers, and fellow travelers. They may listen. We don’t know yet.

What we do know is that cracks have appeared already — i.e., immediately — in the Arab League’s support for the Libyan rebels. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was quoted in the BBC story French jets resume Libya sorties, saying that, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”

This is precisely what Gaddafi wants to hear and hopes to hear. The narrative of Christian crusade, and its modern, secularized variant, Western imperialism, has great resonance in the region. Gaddafi is betting, in fact, that there is enough resonance in this narrative that he can split the Arab support (perhaps “cooperation” would be more accurate) for his removal and turn Libya into the kind of controversial battleground that will prompt the inevitable announcements from diplomats that atrocities have been committed by all sides and that it is time for an “equitable” settlement.

Gaddafi is betting the farm on this one. The situation is not unlike Saddam Hussein launching Scud missiles at Israel in the hopes of turning regional public opinion in his favor. While Saddam Hussein’s tactic did not work quickly enough to save him, in the years since Saddam Hussein’s removal (and eventual execution) and the present time, the anti-Western Imperialist narrative has predictably emerged as a powerful force within Iraq, and it is not going away.

This is an important lesson. Gaddafi is grasping at straws to save his regime, but in so doing he may unleash forces beyond the control of himself or his immediate adversaries. The action necessary to enforcing a “no fly” zone over Libya plays into this narrative quite readily. As long as the rebels are in the headlines, they are winning. If Gaddafi can shift the narrative from pro-rebel to anti-Gaddafi, then he is in the headlines and he is winning, if only for the moment. The moment may pass. The rebels may counter-attack — hopefully with effective munitions — and re-take cities lost to Gaddafi. We don’t know how this fight will play out, but we do know that the long game in North Africa needs to be North African and not anyone else’s game.

Dictators often hope to save themselves by shameless resort to political expediency, but even when they go down to defeat the seeds they have sown can still bear fruit, as though flowering on a grave.

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