Arab League and the Libyan Question

Dr. Ahmed Youssef Ahmed: Arab League and the Libyan Question

  • 31 March 2011

The position of Arab League on the situation in Libya, a member state, is unprecedented in many ways, which makes it important to understand and explain it as well as figure out future prospects for the League and the Arab system in general.

When the ministerial-level emergency session of the Arab League was convened on March 2, 2011, a completely uncharacteristic approach was on view. On the issue of unrest in Libya, the Arab League took a position different from any it has yet taken against any regime of a member state, particularly on its internal situation. In fact, prior to the convening of this session a resolution was passed by permanent members of the Arab League suspending the participation of the Libyan government or by any of its affiliated organizations and agencies from any meeting of the Arab League in wake of Libyan government’s stance. As for the session itself, Arab ministers put forward a paper (Dangerous events taking place in Libya) and issued 12 Resolutions through which it can be easily understood that the League deemed actions by Libyan authorities as “crimes” against peaceful public demonstrations. The ministers (page 1) strongly condemned violence against civilians, especially the recruitment of foreign mercenaries and the use of live munition, heavy artillery and other means for confronting protests. This shows serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The session also called for (Page 2) an immediate end to violence of all kinds, reversion to national dialog and the fulfillment of legitimate demands of Libyan people in order to stop the bloodshed, preservation of integrity and civil peace in Libya. The session (Page 3) then called upon Libyan authorities to lift restrictions imposed on the media and to open all means of communication, including on telephones, to provide urgent access to medical aid. This was accompanied by other resolutions that called upon League’s member states, friendly countries, international and Arab organizations to provide urgent humanitarian aid to Libyan people. The Arab League coordinated immediate support for citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Somalia and other Arab countries residing in Libya by arranging for their evacuation and to provide them asylum (Page 10).

Meanwhile, the session also rebuffed (P/4) Libyan accusations that some Arab residents in the country were carrying out violence against Libyans. It called for the formation of an independent Arab committee for investigating the charges as well as events taking place in Libya. It called upon Libyan authorities to provide necessary protection to all Arab and foreign residents on Libyan soil and to facilitate the safe return of all those who wish to leave and to bear its responsibility for the safety of foreign residents and their right in Libya.

These resolutions make a number of serious and noteworthy points, which are as follows:

• Confirmation of suspension on participation by Libyan government and all of its affiliate organizations and agencies in Arab League meetings until Libyan authorities decide to respond to the demands of the League (Page 8).
• Complete rejection of foreign ground intervention in Libya and affirmation of complete commitment to the preservation of national unity of Libyan people as well as the sovereignty, integrity and security of all of its territories.
• Continued consultation over the best means to protect Libyan citizens to ensure their safety and security and affirmation that Arab countries would not stand idle in the face of bloodshed of Libyan people, and to this end resorting to an air embargo and coordination with Arab League and African Union. (Page 11)
• Recommendation for the next Arab summit to review Libya’s level of commitment to the Charter of the Arab League, with respect to provisions of membership and commitments involved (Page 12). This step might lead to the expulsion of Libya from Arab League or the suspension of its membership if the present regime continues to hold power.

It is also noteworthy that Arab League ministerial level meeting reconvened on March 12, 2011 and called for the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya in order to protect civilians. It called upon the UN Security Council for the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ in conformity with the demands of Western countries that had earlier sought Arab support for this provision. However, this contradicted former resolution of the council to coordinate with African Union without the involvement of any other party.

An attempt must be made to understand this unprecedented position by the League with respect to developments in Libya because the League never before took a position against the government of a member state on account of its internal affairs. The most noteworthy precedent in this regard has been the suspension of the membership of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the late 1970s after it was accused of plotting the assassination of the President of the Yemen Arab Republic (which was an action considered part of an inter-Arab relations) and the suspension of Egypt’s membership from the League after the signing of Egypt–Israel peace treaty in March 1979 (an act that lies at the heart of the Arab regional relations). However, the League had never before taken a position against a member state against its internal affairs in one of the member states, as even in the case of invasion of Iraq in 2003, the League did not take any position when it could have easily condemned the Iraqi government, or even during the rule of US civil administrator in Iraq when it could have denounced or condemned the actions of that administration. The position of the League concerning international criminal prosecution of the Sudanese President Omar Al-Beshir is also known to all.

My view is that there are ulterior reasons for explaining this unprecedented position by the Arab League. On the one hand, Libyan regime has not maintained good relations with Arab states and so no Arab state objected to the decision of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ over it, with the exception of Syria and Algeria. On the other hand, Libyan regime took used excessive force to clamp down on protests that made it difficult, if not impossible, for even its supporters to defend. The third factor was the desertion by the Libyan envoy to the Arab League, which left the regime unrepresented at the regional forum. The statement of the Secretary General of the League that he would not run for a third term in office and his stated intention of contesting in upcoming Egyptian presidential elections might have also played its part in influencing Arab League’s position on Libya.

On close examination of the position of the Arab League, we notice that it changed its approach on the ‘no-fly zone,’ from coordinating with the African Union on the issue to requesting the UN Security Council to impose the embargo. This means that League willingly passed the matter to the Security Council that issued a resolution on March 17, 2011, imposing an air embargo on areas within Libya. It also allowed countries to use air power to prevent the movement of forces belonging to the Libyan regime from air or on the ground on the assurance of not occupying Libya or sending foreign ground forces into its territories. On March 19, the Paris summit attended by the Secretary General of the Arab League gave the green light for coalition forces to impose the no-fly zone (coalition included five Arab countries) and to start military operations. The operations included striking tanks and vehicles of the Libyan leadership in the eastern part of the country and the launching of US cruise missiles against Libyan defense system and military bases.

Weeks have passed since the beginning of coalition forces’ operations in Libya, but little has been achieved on the ground. The Libyan leader’s forces are still holding out. There are only two possible scenarios emerging out of this situation because an outright victory seems impossible for Gaddafi from here on. Under the first scenario, Gaddafi’s forces could eventually flounder. The second possibility is that even after military operations of coalition countries end his forces manage to hold on to the capital Tripoli along with some of the adjoining cities. The first scenario (the fall of Gaddafi), would be favorable for the Arab regional system as the League would seen to having taken the right decisions at the right time. However, the question is what coalition forces would demand from the Arab system in terms of the political price for a new Libya. Under the second scenario (Gaddafi left in control of western regions), Libya would be faced with the threat of partition and a return to the fold of the Arab system in that state would divide the ranks of Arab League over the issue. This could cause a bigger rift in the Arab system among countries supporting change against those advocating status quo.