The Libyan conflict in the context of Middle East revolutions

Over the past three months a wave of popular dissent triggered by long-standing grievances over poor living standards and insufficient domestic reforms has swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Thousands of citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other regional countries demanded a change of political leadership, and immediate social, political and economic reforms.

Unrest in the Middle East

Two Middle Eastern countries, Egypt and Tunisia, have experienced a regime change over the past two months.

In Tunisia, protests began in mid-December 2010 following an incident when a young Tunisian man
self-immolated in front of a government building, protesting against the political and economic situation in Tunisia. The protests ultimately resulted in the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who after 23 years in power fled in exile to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011. The interim Prime Minister has stated that the elections to the Constitutional Assembly will be held in late July 2011. However, the general elections are likely to be postponed to a later date. It is likely that protests over poor living standards, a comparatively high cost of living, and the lack of economic opportunities will invite sporadic protests and political debates in Tunisia over the following months.

On 25 January 2011, large-scale protests erupted in Egypt, eventually forcing the long-standing President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, to hand over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11 February. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, are said to have played a vital role in coordinating the protests. Several Australian journalists were detained in Egypt while covering the protests.

The presidential elections in Egypt, which are scheduled for September 2011, are likely to bring new actors to the Egyptian political scene. A national
referendum on amending the Egyptian constitution has been scheduled for 19 March. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, while presidential candidate and Arab League Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, and former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, have called for the referendum to be postponed or cancelled.

The new Egyptian Government will also need to tackle the unresolved tension between the Egyptian Christian Coptic community (who comprise 10 per cent of the Egyptian population) and the mainstream Sunni Muslim community. In the clashes in Cairo on 9 March, over 150 people were injured and at least 13 were killed. Egypt's relationship with Israel has been a prominent topic of discussion in the context of Egypt's future role and position in the Middle East.

In other regional countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen, protesters were reported to have clashed with the internal security forces. The authorities in these countries have pledged domestic reforms towards improving the socio-economic position for marginalised groups. However, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent a 1000-strong force,
Peninsula Shield Force, in response to the calls from authorities in Bahrain to help protect government facilities.

Western nations and Iran have been critical of Bahrain’s response to the protests, which resulted in hundreds of injured and dozens of dead. The military in Bahrain allegedly fired upon
medical staff, leading to accusations of crimes against humanity. Iran in particular has been concerned about the Shiite Muslim majority in Bahrain, which is under the minority Sunni Islamic leadership. The Iranian Government has also stepped up its efforts to contain and prevent protests in Iran, whilst increasing the suppression of political activists and further curtailing freedoms of speech and assembly.

The uncertain security situation in Libya

Libya, which is currently experiencing ongoing violent civil disturbances, has attracted international condemnation over its government’s indiscriminate use of force against protesters, in which it has utilised warships, artillery and the air force. The 41-year long authoritarian regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has responded to the protests with a disproportionate use of military force, resulting in thousands of people being killed or deemed missing.

Humanitarian disaster zone

The dire humanitarian situation that is currently unfolding in Libya, and its eventual aftermath, are likely to remain the focus of Australian diplomacy in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

Over 250 000 people, the majority of which were foreign workers, have fled Libya to date, triggering a humanitarian emergency at its borders with Egypt and Tunisia. Some Australians have been evacuated with the assistance of the British Government and other partners, but it is still unclear how many dual citizens have been affected by the Libyan emergency, and the Middle East unrest in general. International agencies, including the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), have appealed to the international community for enhanced support.

The Australian Government has initially provided $6 million in emergency aid to international humanitarian agencies operating in the border areas with Libya. On 1 March the UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council. On 7 March the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed the Foreign Minister of Jordan, Mr Abdellilah Al-Khatib, as his Special Envoy to Libya to deal with the current crisis. On the same day the UN and its partners launched a $160 million appeal to address humanitarian needs arising from the crisis.

International responses

International leaders, including from Australia, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic States (OIS), the US, the European Union and other regions have called on Gaddafi to immediately halt military reprisals against the protesters, warning that any human rights violations by the Libyan Government would be investigated at the international level.

The UN Security Council (UN SC) approved a no-fly zone over Libya on 17 March with
Resolution 1973 (2011) with a ten vote majority. There were five abstentions—Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil. The Security Council
authorised ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The draft resolution excluded the possibility of having an ‘occupation force’ in Libya. This measure banned all flights over Libya excluding those used for the transfer of humanitarian supplies. It specifically called on the Arab states to cooperate with other member states to help stabilise the situation. According to the UN website:
The resolution further strengthens an arms embargo that the Council imposed last month when it unanimously approved sanctions against the Libyan authorities, freezing the assets of its leaders and referring the ongoing violent repression of civilian demonstrators to the International Criminal Court (ICC). ...ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has already opened an investigation into Mr. Qadhafi, some of his sons and members of his inner circle for such crimes in repressing peaceful protesters.
Australia supported international calls, led by the United Kingdom and France, for the no-fly zone over Libya. In a joint ministerial meeting between Australia and the Cooperation Council on the Arab States of the Gulf on 8 March, both sides condemned the 'serious violations of human rights and international law' by the Libyan authorities. They jointly expressed their support for the UN Security Council Resolution 1970 on Libya dated 26 February, the Human Rights Council Resolution of 25 February, and the Arab League Resolution 7298 of 2 March.

These actions were complemented by the Reserve Bank of Australia's targeted financial sanctions of 9 March, which prohibit Australians from undertaking financial transactions with listed individuals associated with the Gaddafi regime. As the Libyan situation remains unstable, Australians are advised against travelling to Libya under the present circumstances.

The Security Council report on Libya of 14 March 2011 contains a
list of actions undertaken by the UN SC and regional organisations in the Gulf to address the Libyan crisis.

France recognised the Libyan Opposition—Libyan Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC)—which was set up on 17 February 2011 as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Several of Libya's United Nations (UN) representatives, including those in the UN’s Geneva offices, have defected to the Opposition in protest against Gaddafi's actions, urging the wider international community to support the Libyan people against the regime.

The stabilisation and recovery efforts following the civil conflict in Libya are likely to be long term. The conflict in Libya, and the wider unrest in the Middle East, is also likely to affect the business interests of Australia and other Western nations in this region. The international community, including countries in the Gulf, will be called upon to increase their humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people for the foreseeable future.

(Image sourced from the CIA World Factbook)


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