Storm In The Desert: Britain’s Intervention In Libya And The Arab Spring

By Mark Muller Stuart

Birlinn, £25

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Review by Trevor Royle

FEW moments in recent history have captured the liberal imagination more completely than the so-called “Arab Spring”, which galvanised the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region in the early part of 2011, bringing hope to millions who were living under the shackle of repressive and unrepresentative governments. And, sad to say, even fewer revolutionary movements have spluttered out so fitfully, their aims unfulfilled, to be replaced by bitter internecine fighting and destructive civil wars as rival factions took advantage of the power vacuum to pursue their own agendas. Ironically, it is only in Tunisia where the revolution was sparked (literally) by the self-immolation of a market trader that there has been any measure of lasting reform.

In many respects, the Arab Spring was a huge test for the rest of the world and as Mark Muller Stuart shows in this densely packed and invigorating account, it was one that they largely failed. Coming so soon after the disastrous US-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, it awakened all the old doubts about the validity of regime change and the need to find a balance between providing humanitarian assistance on the one hand while avoiding military intervention on the other.

In no other country was the issue more pointedly expressed than in Libya where an uprising began in February against the increasingly tyrannical rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who had been in power since 1969 after overthrowing the pro-British Senussi monarchy in a bloodless coup.

In this case the rest of the world could not stand idly by and watch as the country descended into extreme violence and thousands of innocents started being killed. Throughout Gaddafi’s 40-odd years in office he had been a thorough pest who had caused nothing but trouble for his neighbours, seeing himself as an Arab nationalist paragon and patron of worldwide revolutionary causes from the Italian Red Brigade and the German Baader-Meinhof gang to the IRA in Northern Ireland. He was also chums with unsavoury types such as Nicolae Ceausescu and Robert Mugabe but it helped matters no end that his country was oil-rich and blessed by a vital strategic position in the Mediterranean geo-political region.

Although that accident of geography seemed to trump everything, Britain had vested interests in Gaddafi’s behaviour and this factor could not be ignored. Not only had Libya once been an important ally but more recently it had emerged as a state sponsor of terrorism not just in Northern Ireland but also in the skies over Scotland when a Libyan-sponsored terrorist bomb brought down a US airliner above Lockerbie in 1988. So it was hardly surprising that the cry went up that Britain had to do something – anything – to quell the violence and ease the suffering of the benighted people in Benghazi, where the revolt began.

The preferred solution was the use of air power to produce a no-fly zone but no-one in authority seemed to know how that might be imposed or what the outcome might be. Even so, as Muller Stuart makes clear, the world had moved on and other non-violent solutions were becoming available, notably non-state mediation, which demands of its practitioners less reliance on diplomatic channels and more on what he calls the simple virtues of “neutrality, integrity and humanitarian commitment”.

That is the real focus of Storm In The Desert and there is no better guide to the process than its author. An experienced advocate who knows all that needs to be known about the niceties of international law and conflict resolution, Muller Stuart is well versed in the type of problem thrown up by the Libyan emergency and he either knows or has known the main players involved in it.

As a lawyer he has also been profoundly affected by the fact that the revolution in Libya (as well as the earlier overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan) had been prompted by his own profession, judges and lawyers who had grown weary of banging their heads against court-house walls and decided to act against the all-too-obvious injustices of constitutional dictatorship.

There is much more to it than that of course. Having been present in Benghazi in 2011, Muller Stuart was in the front line of the Arab Spring and has seen at first hand the truth of Edmund Burke’s great dictum that "when bad men combine, the good must associate” otherwise evil will triumph. His solution is that there must be increased involvement from people who put more trust in “personal relations, trust, loyalty, empathy” than they do in the everyday political and diplomatic round, rather as civil politics came as a lifeline to Scotland in the 1980s when talk of devolution was all but moribund.

And therein lies a further consideration. The author is the founder of Beyond Borders, the Scottish forum for fostering peace and international exchange and he makes a sound case for a neutral Scotland being at the heart of future peace-building and conflict resolution initiatives. How this could happen is still open to rigorous debate, as are many of his other contentions, but in this cogently argued narrative, Muller Stuart has hopefully started a ball rolling. For the sake of future interventions – and there are bound to be many in the years ahead – let’s hope that it gains traction.