The battle for Tripoli may continue for a few more days, but the war for Libya is coming to a close. There is now little doubt that the brutal and unpredictable regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is now in its death throes.
That Gaddafi, a person who combined a love for comical acts of showmanship and a cold-blooded support for stray terrorist activities, could have ruled Libya for 41 years without serious challenge is a testament to the political rot that has been the hallmark of the modern Arab world. But the uneasiness which many developing countries, India included, had about Western military intervention in an internal rebellion is a reminder of the difficulty of drawing a line between sovereignty and humanitarian intervention.
Libya will be the first regime to topple in what can be called the second phase of the so-called Arab Spring or the jasmine revolutions. The fall of the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia was comparatively non-controversial. The revolts that broke out were clearly popular and homegrown. The violence proved limited and the regimes short-lived once the militaries of both countries declined to fire on their own people. Libya, Syria and, to some degree, Yemen were the second wave of regimes to see their people turn against them. But these were always going to be bloodier affairs. Their societies were more tribal in nature, their armies less professional. Syria continues to be wracked with civil war because the military has stood steadfastly with President Bashar al-Assad. Libya saw its military split. And Yemen’s polity has all but fragmented into a half-dozen armed factions. There are strong ethical arguments for intervening in a conflict like Libya’s. One, a protracted bloodbath would radicalise the opposition, pushing them into Islamicist or terrorist hands. Two, a regime like Gaddafi’s had a record of almost uninterrupted trouble-making for the past few decades. His was a rogue State whose mischief was held back only by its size. Third, and arguably the most important reason for intervention, was that the fact that the Arab world had become the least democratised region of the world was a key reason for its being the source of so many of the world’s more perverse ideologies and most twisted political challenges. The majority of Libyans were opposed to Gaddafi so it made sense to boost the Arab Spring forward by giving his regime a little push.
However, it is a fine line between helping a popular uprising and being an imperialist busybody. The West itself split over intervention in Libya. If the rebels succeed in putting together a genuinely representative government they will ex post facto legitimise intervention. But it is unlikely that future countries will provide so clear cut a case. Which is why it still remains a truism that violations of sovereignty should remain the rarest of rare cases and carry the approval stamp of legitimate multilateral organisations.