Libya: Arab League Supports No-Fly Zone. Now What About Egyptian Military Help for the Rebels?

On 23 February I doubted whether the West would agree to intervene militarily in the Libyan crisis. It still looks that way and there are good reasons why the West shouldn’t. But the discussion about outside help for the rebels has taken a decisive new turn with the Arab League agreeing unanimously to the imposition of a no-fly zone at its meeting on 12 March. Surely this opens the way for immediate consideration of the next step: authorisation by the Arab League of joint Arab military assistance for the rebels to be provided on the League’s behalf by Egypt.

We know that any direct military intervention on the part of Nato or any combination of Western powers, even if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, may well create more problems than it solves. Whether we like it or not, Iraq casts a long shadow over any discussion of such an option. The motives behind anything the US, Britain, France, the EU as a whole might do will quite rightly be questioned. It is inconceivable that Western action would ever be seen as entirely altruistic. But if military assistance were to be provided by Egypt’s current military rulers, with the backing of the Arab League, it would be much harder to object on the grounds of Western imperialism, Western determination to control oil supplies and so on. Indeed, it could be seen as deliberately preventing intervention by the West.

Egypt’s military is the 10th largest in the world, is highly respected in the Arab world and has the men and materiel to transform the power balance in the internal conflict, which as I write appears to be worryingly swinging very much in Gaddafi’s favour. We’ve heard so much about the links between the US and Egyptian military leaderships that the Egyptians would presumably not be wanting in strategic and tactical advice, if they needed it. And no doubt the Americans could help in other clandestine ways, short of anything that involved actually deploying troops.

Although there are still huge question marks over the commitment of the Egyptian military leaders to the principles and aims of the recent revolution, nevertheless, they earned considerable respect for the role they played in it and, as I understand it, many of the democracy activists are still ready to put their trust in the army, while doing what they can to hold the army’s feet to the fire. This would presumably add to the regional and international legitimacy of the military decisively intervening in Libya.

But there are major problems with the scenario of Egypt playing the role of liberator. If the form of intervention chosen does not bring a swift end to the conflict, a protracted engagement could get very messy. Then it’s one thing to protect the East of the country and the gains made there by the rebels. It’s quite another to dislodge Gaddafi and his forces from Tripoli.

While Egypt, with the backing of the Arab League and other regional and international bodies, could not be credibly accused of acting in support of perceived Western interests, nonetheless, what would happen to the control of Libya’s oil assets would be an obvious concern.

Doubts notwithstanding, the possibility that the world will just sit back and watch watch Gaddafi wreak vengeance on hundreds and thousands of his own people who simply want freedom from tyranny, a just share in the country’s wealth, a good education, jobs, freedom of thought and expression, is an almost unbearable thought. I seem to have read dozens of brilliantly argued pieces telling us that this is the business of the Libyan people themselves, but all I can think of is Srebrenica and the shame that Europe will always bear for allowing that massacre to occur when it could certainly have been prevented. There is no risk free option, but surely politics is the art of the possible, not the art of being universally loved and admired and having every action one might take given permission by the highest authority.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the horrendous death toll they have caused have revived age-old discussions about the nature of evil and what kind of god–if god exists–could allow such devastation to occur. But on one thing everyone is agreed: no matter how well prepared, we are powerless to prevent some people from dying when natural disasters occur. But the Libyan crisis is not a natural disaster and it is perfectly possible for action to be taken which would prevent a huge loss of life, not to mention the repression and torture that would certainly follow any restoration of Gaddafi’s control of the entire country.

The Egyptian option offers a way forward. Let the plan be taken apart and found wanting of you like, but if it withstands criticism, it should be implemented before it’s too late.

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