Asymmetries in reaction to Libya compared with its neighbours
Feb 28, 2011

Asymmetries in reaction to Libya compared with its neighbours

Over the last two months, we have seen enormous populist protests sweeping through Northern Africa and the Middle East. There has been a considerably difference in the US and UN reaction to these protests and their subsequent events in the case of Libya compared to the others. Namely, the reaction in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen has been very much muted while the reaction in the case of Libya has been very severe.

After the brutal attacks on protesters that is descending the country into a something between chaos and civil war, the UN has acted relatively strongly and quickly. Multilateral sanctions, an arms embargo, freezing of Qaddafi's assets, a travel ban for his family and movement towards trying him in the international courts. This has been broadened by various unilateral actions by the US, Britain and others. The US, along with many others have explicitly called for Qaddafi resigning, describing him as "delusional" to the UN. These actions have been diametrically opposed to that in, say, Egypt or Bahrain where the US has done no more than issue a few generic statements against violence and for the principle of democracy without even explicitly calling for Mubarak's resignation.

Of course, there is an obvious explanation for this asymmetry and it is a good one: the violence perpetuated by the Qaddafi regime in Egypt has been at least an order of magnitude worse than that elsewhere. It is both natural and correct that the punitive world reaction would be considerably harsher and indeed I think the reaction is absolutely appropriate. Nonetheless, I don't think it is the only factor at play here.


One aspect of the protests makes Libya stand out over all the others. It is the only one which is not a US backed military dictatorship. Instead, it is something of a pariah state. So while I have noticed before that the appeal of protests has shone through despite considerably differences between countries, the external reaction is very much sensitive to these differences. Namely, the geopolitical realities create pressures that result in downplayed reactions against the regimes in other countries but relatively inflated (albeit appropriate) reactions in Libya. While it is difficult perhaps to measure the strength of this influence, it is nonetheless there.

In Egypt, for instance, over 300 people died in the regime change many of them with considerable brutality and far outside of international norms for acceptable conduct. So while it is true that Libya is worse (over 1000, with potential for considerably more), Egypt was nonetheless still very bad and yet had little external pressure.

I should carefully delineate that I am in general quite opposed to the use of sanctions. When they become a structural, long term, extension of power that overwhelmingly ends up hurting the people - as is so often the case - one must be very careful before claiming they are justified in a specific situation. However when they are targeted, timely, punitive and with the express purpose of trying to benefit the people such as is the current case (it may change in the future, I would oppose long term sanctions if Qaddafi remained in power) then I believe this is one of the cases where it is a reasonable approach.

Perhaps most striking in the comparison identified here was the January death of a Palestinian woman peacefully protesting who died by excessive inhalation of tear gas. The type of tear gas used has long been banned in Europe, the US and many other countries around the world but not in Israel. So while it is all fine and good to embargo tear gas from entering Libya, one is tempted to ask why not block this deadly and condemned tear gas from Israel? It is hardly comforting when one realizes these same canisters print on their sides, proudly, 'Made in USA'.

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