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Harsh lessons from regime change

Although the event went largely unreported in Pakistan and elsewhere, a Coptic church was burned down in the Libyan city of Benghazi on March 4. Earlier, there was an assassination attempt against the Italian consul, and attacks on the British and Tunisian consulates in the same city.

Benghazi was also the site of the murder of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, last year, together with three of his colleagues. Libya’s eastern city is controlled by a bewildering medley of militant groups, and is almost completely out of the control of the fragile General National Council. Most recently, a Gaza-bound relief convoy of trucks was detained, and three British women of Pakistani descent gang-raped.

This complete breakdown of authority and decent into anarchy underlines the perils of toppling dictatorships. While the Nato campaign to oust Muammar Qadhafi had considerable support in and out of Libya, the consequences have been dire. Recently, there were reports of tribal battles near Tripoli that left some 3,000 homeless. One police chief has been murdered, and another kidnapped.

And the fallout has not been limited to Libya: the upsurge of Islamist-led violence in northern Mali can be directly traced to the arms and mercenaries pouring into the country from neighbouring Libya after Qadhafi was removed from power. The fact is that Libya is a fractious country that was held together for decades with an iron fist by a psychotic dictator who used ferocious violence to stay in power.

Iraq, too, is the scene of unending violence. A decade after the US-led coalition removed Saddam Hussein from the scene, and less than two years after the American pullout, suicide bombings and shootings continue to rack the country. Although an elected government is in power, tensions between Shias and Sunnis continue to fuel violence. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes, and Iraqi women, once the most emancipated in the Arab world, have seen many of their freedoms snatched away by an increasingly religious state and society.

Egypt has seen two years of chaos and confusion, despite holding free and fair elections. Mubarak’s exit has not been followed by the smooth transition to a liberal democracy many in the West had hoped for. The Tahrir Square revolution has instead led to a deeply polarised nation where secularists are fighting the religious right represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. No resolution is in sight, and as the economy sinks into a deepening recession, there are Egyptian voices calling for military intervention.And Syria, another key Arab state, has been in the grip of a murderous civil war that has taken upward of 80,000 lives over the last two years. No end to the killing seems imminent, and nor is a political solution. The recent rebel mortar attack on Damascus University underscores the increasing disregard for human life demonstrated by both sides.

As the fighting intensifies with more sophisticated foreign arms available to the Free Syrian Army, both the rebels and government forces are resorting to inhuman means. Civilians caught in the crossfire are being forced to flee to neighbouring states. Bashar al-Assad is being propped up by Iran and Russia, and shows no sign of quitting. The opposition is fragmented, with extremists acquiring increasing power.

One thing these ruling and fallen dictators have in common – and we should include Tunisia in this discussion — is that they were all secular, and kept Islamic parties and groups on a tight leash. After the exit of these autocrats, Islamists have surfaced to claim power, elbowing out liberals who had initially spearheaded the Arab Spring. This rivalry is threatening the nascent democracy that had held so much promise. Indeed, it might even pave the way for another round of military rule if the two sides cannot negotiate a power-sharing formula on broadly secular principles.

Another lesson here is about the dangers of removing a strong ruler without thinking the consequences through. While most of us abhor dictatorship, how prepared are we to cope with the fallout of an autocrat’s fall? And outsiders, as we have seen in Iraq and Libya, have very little idea about the internal dynamics of Arab states. The path to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

And the intentions behind foreign intervention have often been less than honourable. The disastrous invasion of Iraq, justified by non-existent WMDs, has opened the door to endless violence that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Oil was a factor there, as it was in Libya. Both countries continue to struggle to restore the writ of the state as militias and terrorist groups wreak havoc.

The whole concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) needs to be revisited in the light of recent experience. While protecting people from dictators is a worthy ideal, what follows next needs more thought than it has received thus far. A further lesson is that there are limits to power, and it is easier to topple a nasty regime than it is to put a legitimate, effective one in its place.

It seems that Obama has learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and hence his reluctance to get dragged into Syria, despite the urging of allies like Turkey, Britain and France. One reason the US has refused to supply the rebels with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles is the fear that these weapons might fall into the hands of extremists who could use them to attack civilian aircraft.

All too often, one dictatorship is replaced by another, as happened in Iran when the fall of the Shah has been followed by more than forty years of a repressive theocracy. In Iraq, too, the Al Maliki government is being increasingly accused of torture. None of this is to suggest that dictators ought to continue ruling. However, regime change should come from within, and not imposed by outside forces

Irfan Husain, "Harsh lessons from regime change," Social sciences. 2013-04-01.