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April 9, 2013 8:53 am

Why Libya Surprised Us, and Why Syria Won’t

avatar by Jacob Campbell

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Abdelbaset Sieda (right), head of the Syrian National Council, Syria's main opposition group. Photo: FP Online.

Who could have foreseen that Libya, within just one year of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, would join the community of democratic nations? Virtually everyone predicted that the Islamist tide would sweep through Tripoli as it had done through Tunis and Cairo. But it was not to be. Instead, the Libyan people made fools of us all.

To our surprise and delight, it was the moderate National Forces Alliance (NFA), not the radical Justice & Construction Party (JCP), which swept to victory in last year’s elections for Libya’s General National Congress. And, when the Congress convened to elect a new Prime Minister, the NFA’s Mahmoud Jibril utterly trounced the JCP’s Awad Barasi, who failed even to scrape his way into the second round of voting. In the end, it was Ali Zidan, a liberal, who took up the premiership.

How did this happen? How was it that, of all countries, Gaddafi’s Libya – described as the “Worst of the Worst” by Freedom House – could become the success story of the Arab Spring?

Firstly, military intervention by the West significantly reduced the dependence of the Libyan opposition on pro-Islamist Qatar. Although Doha did its best to influence the outcome of the revolution by supplying vast quantities of guns and cash to Islamist militias fighting Gaddafi’s regime, the eight-month uprising was simply too short for Qatar-backed radicals to build up the necessary momentum. Indeed, Libyans regarded Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sheikh Ali Salabi – both prominent oppositionists heavily supported by Qatar – with such indifference that their Homeland Party failed to win even a single seat in post-Gaddafi elections to the General National Congress.

Secondly, the West’s formal recognition of the Transitional National Council as a “legitimate representative” of the Libyan people did much to deprive Islamist factions of the leadership role to which they aspired. The Council – formed not in exile, but by local activists in Benghazi – gave Libyans crucial ownership of their revolution. By recognising the legitimacy of this endogenous body, the West sent a clear message to the world that Libya’s future was not up for grabs by foreign-backed opportunists.

Turning now to Syria, it is through analyzing the success of the Libyan Revolution that we can begin to determine why the Syrian Revolution is, and will be, such a catastrophic failure.

Unlike in Libya, there has been no Western military intervention in Syria. As a result, more than two years of bloody civil war have now passed without the slightest prospect of relief for Syria’s beleaguered population. But Syria’s loss is the Islamists’ gain; as the conflict has dragged on, the once-marginal radicals have grown in strength, to the point where they now effectively control the armed opposition. Consequently, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no longer an army of would-be liberators, but of oppressors-in-waiting.

As for the Syrian National Council, it is fundamentally unlike the Transitional National Council. Formed by exiles in Turkey and dominated by Islamists from its inception, the Council was almost totally irrelevant to those who were actually risking their lives to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad; when asked in mid-2012 to name a Syrian opposition group, only two percent of Syrians gave the Council as their answer. By contrast, the FSA was named by eighty-three percent of those surveyed.

Although Western states have now withdrawn their endorsement from the Council, the damage, regrettably, is already done. When the European Union embraced the group as a “legitimate representative” in February 2012, the Council’s president thanked the EU for “giv[ing] us added momentum,” and called for “all other Syrian opposition groups to work with the SNC.” Not at all coincidentally, the FSA – until then largely secular – announced soon afterwards that it would team up with the Council to form a joint civilian-military command. By conferring undue legitimacy upon the Syrian National Council, the West had empowered the Islamists to hijack the Syrian Revolution.

For these reasons, it is doubtful that Syria will surprise us in the way that Libya did. We can only hope, therefore, that an important lesson has been learned. It is not enough for Western leaders to speak wishfully about democracy taking root in the Arab world; rather, democracy requires action.

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  • aldo

    Jerry focuses on religion and Libyan ‘moderation’. Does he know that so many Libyan women strongly complain abt impositions dictated against them by fanatic Islamist feared by men also?
    It might be worse but situation is bad and Tunisian/Algerian influences (if any) are not at all felt. Christian churches are open only for Mass time and attendance is 1/4 or less

    • jerry hersch

      you arecorrect about the status of Christians in Libya it has been that way since Italy/UK left.
      As to influence there was much listening to broadcasts from across the borders especially in the West of Libya.
      As I am sure you know there are two distinct cultures in libya along the coast Cyranaican and Tripolitanian…The tribal south ,the Fezzan, has not changed since the original imposition of Islam.
      There are neighborhoods in the largest cities Benghazi and Tripoli where the outward appearance of being moderate is far worse in consequences than a woman wearing shorts walking through “Harediville” in Jerusalem..these are mostly in the poorer districts..
      The Sirte coast also is a problem area..largely untouched.
      But the veneer is there for the majority-it just need depth.
      With a generally literate population..and a young one …only 10% of the population is over 55..and tis segment is the most vocally conservative..the worry is povery-libya has an unemployment rate of 30-40% and this will usually breed radicalism.There has been no real study ofthe “Gini Index” a measure of income the 17% employment in the agricultural sector is a good place to start.
      Rapid industrialization would be a key to holding the line..masses of literate unemployed in close proximity to markets and fuel.

  • aldo

    Libya surprise?! I understand ‘positive’ surprise. As Italian resident in Libya since 2005 I dont share yr view. It might be much worse, it is true but it is far from any democratic parameter, Libya is ‘ruled’ by dozens lawless militias.
    Militias kill, torture and jail as they like.
    Govt watches.

  • jerry hersch

    Libya also had the advantage of having neighbors such as Bourguiba in Tunisia and a Socialist government in Algeria which through the media and visits of nationals helped bring a more moderate message…so did the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from across the globe -many of them non-Moslem.

    Syria would have had an internal moderate group had the Ba’ath political party not been usurped in the 1966 coup..many moderates fled the nation.The Lebanese contacts have been one of the few means of moderate thoughts entering much of the nation..And there is a distinct differnce across the board in the thinking of Syrian Christians vs Lebanese Christians..even among those nominially of the same Christian denomination.