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Sanctions and unrest are familiar turf for Gaddafi

Sanctions and unrest are familiar turf for Gaddafi

Defeat of rebels would ensure short-term survival; After that, Libya faces sanctions, possible insurgency; Gaddafi dealt with both of these in the past; Insurgency now likely to be on a bigger scale.

March 15, 2011 4:07 by

If Muammar Gaddafi, as now seems plausible, defeats an insurgency in the east and regains control of Libya, he is likely to resume a familiar role: that of international pariah, reliant on force to suppress unrest.

For two decades starting in the 1980s, Libya was subject to international sanctions and during the same period, Gaddafi fought off an insurgency in the east of the country.

Now, once again, foreign governments and the United Nations are imposing sanctions and Gaddafi is facing an insurgency by rebels in the east.

So what has changed?

Much is the same. Now, as before, Gaddafi is likely to shrug off sanctions or even turn them into a badge of honour. But if there is a difference, it is that this time around the scale of the internal unrest is likely to be much greater.

“The idea that all he’s got to do is defeat the opposition in Benghazi and everything will return to normal — I’m not entirely sure that’s a view that I would subscribe to,” said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight.

“I think there are serious question-marks about the long-term survivability of his regime.”


In the past few weeks, Western governments, Russia and the United Nations have frozen the assets of Gaddafi, his family and the Libyan government, implemented arms embargoes and imposed travel bans.

As he watches this, Gaddafi is likely to be feeling a sense of deja vu.

Starting in the 1980s, Western states — and later the UN and European Union — slapped sanctions on Libya over its banned weapons programme, support for militant groups and the Dec. 21, 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie.

Throughout those years, Libya’s economy stagnated, but Gaddafi was able to retain political authority at home by casting himself as the scourge of the West and Israel.

Even today, he uses the wrecked former home in Tripoli that was bombed by U.S. jets in 1986 as the backdrop for some of his speeches.

He may try to do the same thing now that he is facing sanctions again, said Mohammed El-Katiri, Middle East analyst with Eurasia Group.

“It is a problem economically speaking but on the political front … he might capitalise on that to build up his profile,” said El-Katiri. “It will give him legitimacy.”

Surviving sanctions will not be straightforward. Strong economic growth in the seven years since sanctions were lifted has given many Libyans higher incomes and access to foreign consumer goods — things they may resent losing.

In an age when Twitter and Facebook give Libyans access to the outside world it may be more difficult to sustain the narrative of Gaddafi as Arab nationalist hero.

But the evidence from the streets of Tripoli is that many people still believe in it, while those who do not are too frightened to speak out.

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