Despite its proximity to Europe and its status as a major African oil producer, Libya’s sparse population and relative isolation from its neighbors make the stakes of civil unrest much lower than in other regions of the Arab world.
Libya returned to the headlines Saturday when a protest in front of the headquarters of the National Transitional Council (NTC) turned violent. A group of demonstrators in Benghazi broke into the building, vandalized and looted the property and reportedly drove NTC head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil to flee through a back exit. A leading member of the council has since resigned, and Abdel-Jalil has warned that the country risks heading toward civil war if protests continue to intensify. The euphoria many Libyans felt at the death of former leader Moammar Gadhafi last October has faded, and though elections for a constituent assembly are scheduled for June, it is hard to see a stable, democratic government on the horizon in Libya.
The young men at the protest shared a general feeling of discontent with Libya’s direction more than three months after Gadhafi’s death. But they also share another trait: they all live in Benghazi, the city where the NTC was formed and is supposed to have the highest level of support. Benghazi is where the Libyan revolution started, and many of the NTC leaders come from the city. In less than a year, the council’s self-appointed leaders — many are still involved in the governance of the country — have gone from beloved to vilified in the eyes of many who supported the revolution, including those from Benghazi.
Halfway across the country, reports emerged Monday that “pro-Gadhafi fighters” had retaken the central Libyan town of Bani Walid – the last to fall during the war. Revolutionary brigade commanders in Bani Walid gave several interviews claiming that the city had fallen to elements of the former regime, though this does not appear to be the case at the moment. Although the attackers quite likely once fought on behalf of the former Libyan leader, it would not be entirely accurate to label them as “pro-Gadhafi fighters.” Their objective now probably centers on regaining their positions locally, rather than reclaiming the country as a whole. Even though Bani Walid appears not to have fallen, the incident underscores just how unstable much of Libya remains. The criticism levied at NTC leadership by the militia leaders who described the attacks, meanwhile, highlights how little authority Abdel-Jalil and his NTC associates hold over Libya.
Though Libya probably has yet to experience the worst of post-war instability, problems so far have remained relatively contained. While Libya is close to Europe and is one of Africa’s major oil producers, its scattered population and relative isolation from its neighbors lessen the impact of civil unrest in comparison with other regions of the Arab world. Stratfor pointed this out in the first month of the so-called Arab Spring. The events taking place in North Africa at that time, while dramatic, did not carry nearly as much strategic significance as what was happening and continues to happen in the Persian Gulf. The unrest that broke out among Shiite communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, beginning last February, raised the question of whether Iran, in its bid for regional hegemony, was developing or activating covert assets in the eastern Arabian Peninsula with which to intimidate its Arab neighbors. The United States was reducing its military presence in Iraq, making the timing ripe for Tehran to encourage an Arab Shiite uprising in its former Persian domain as a means of expanding Iran’s sphere of influence.
Repeated efforts by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to contain Shiite demonstrations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have failed to entirely fix the problem due to domestic and regional sectarian dynamics. In fact, while Shiite unrest has simmered in Bahrain, the city of Qatif in the Eastern Province has seen a steady escalation of incidents that seem to indicate Shiite protesters – and what are referred to as “unknown assailants” by Saudi officials — are provoking Saudi security forces into more frequent clashes. Iranian media has for several months eagerly reported on Shiite demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. They are trying to shape a perception in the region that the GCC states are not as ideally equipped to handle the unrest. Iran went a step further on Monday: Senior Iranian military commander Brig. Gen. Mirfeisal Baqerzadeh told Iran’s Fars News Agency that “the Islamic revolution of the Bahraini people will gradually enter a phase of sporadic military, guerilla and irregular operations” against the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The obvious question that follows from this statement is: What means does Iran have left to attempt to develop an armed resistance in Bahrain, and possibly even in Saudi Arabia?
Iran’s covert capabilities in the eastern Arabian Peninsula fall well short of what it has developed in Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghanistan, where Tehran has the ability to supply and sustain an insurgency. However, the GCC states may not be able to completely ignore Iran’s bluster. Through recent military maneuvers, Iran has already highlighted the threat it can pose to the energy-vital Strait of Hormuz via regular and irregular naval tactics. More recently, Iran has been trying to remind its adversaries of its global network of covert assets, especially those it claims to have in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iran may be constrained in its operations within GCC states, but these states are on high alert for further signs of Iranian meddling within their borders. That the threat of Shiite armed resistance on the eastern littoral of the Arabian Peninsula arises at the same time the United States and Iran appear to be opening a diplomatic channel of communication, further amplifies the concerns of these Arab states. It doesn’t cost Iran much to attempt to scare its neighbors with threatening rhetoric — but nor is it clear, in the current geopolitical climate, that the GCC states are prepared to call an Iranian bluff.