The recent apparent flight of Gaddafi from Tripoli, though not the end of the conflict between the rebel forces and his regime, signifies a new stage where the rebel forces will not have to transition into a functioning government in search of legitimacy, and where Gaddafi examines his options between fighting a desperate resistance movement himself in the hinterlands or choosing a comfortable but impotent exile. Let us examine, though, some of the consequences of the dramatic shift in Libya’s government for the Arab League and the African Union.
The Arab League and African Union have taken dramatically different actions with regards to the rebellion in Libya. The Arab League was quick to legitimize the rebels and give them their support and aid, while the African Union just as firmly supported Gaddafi . Given that Gaddafi appears to be on the way out, the African Union looks like the losers. Since Libya subsidized the African Union with nearly 15% of its income, and the new regime is less likely to be as generous to an organization that was not supportive of their efforts to topple Gaddafi, and given that the African Union is full of freeloading nations that do not pay their due, it is not hard to see that the African Union’s ability to pay for missions (like its “occupation” of Mogadishu) is going to be severely hampered.
On the other hand, the Arab League has to be feeling somewhat jubilant. Gaddafi was, as a leader, someone who greatly struggled in the diplomatic arts of showing respect to his fellow Arab leaders. He insulted the Omani ruler as well as the Saudi king, and the regime that replaces him is likely to be far more tolerant and accepting of political Islam than the outgoing regime was. The fact that Syrian Sunni rebels are drawing strength from Gaddafi’s flight suggests that the broader implications of the Arab Spring have not been the export of Jeffersonian democracy in its American or European forms but rather the growing legitimacy of political Islam, which is the majority political position, it would appear, in much of the Arab world. Instead of making the Middle East safe for democracy, our efforts may make the Middle East safe for a Sunni caliphate in some form. That’s not a pleasant outcome.
Where the Arab Union goes from here is clear—supporting freedom and democracy in most of the Middle East (except for Bahrain) is a tactically sound way of promoting the spread of political Isalm in a form that is (for now) acceptable to the West and may even (as in Libya) gain one the armed support of the United States and European powers. How long that remains the case is difficult to see at this point, but so long as one has a tactic that increases one’s success and is subsidized by others, why stop using it until it stops working? There are still some dictators that could use toppling, like the Assads of Syria, and so the tactic is likely to continue for some time, at least months.
For the African Union, the prognosis is more grim. For one, it is likely to lose a lot of its income now that Libya is being ruled by a less stable and less supportive regime. Its doctrine of preserving bogus colonial boundaries appears discredited by its own support of devolution in South Sudan, while inconsistently opposing Somaliland (whose historical case and legitimacy as a state are far greater than that of South Sudan). If the African Union wishes to increase its potential dues paying members, supporting “targeted” secession movements (Western Sahara and Somaliland come to mind, but Zanzibar is another possibility) is a way to increase donations, so long as AU membership comes with dues-paying strings attached (maybe the payment of so many years worth of dues in advance). This would be, in effect, bribing the AU to accept one as a member, but the AU might be willing to be so bribed at this point given its financial crisis and total lack of legitimacy.
It will be curious to see how the rising tide of political Islam and its accommodation or transformation of regimes in North Africa will influence the dynamic between the Arab League and the African Union. The core of the African Union’s membership is in exceptionally poor black African states, while the core of the Arab League is in the wealthy oil-producing Middle East. Both institutions cover North Africa, which is culturally Arab and Berber and in the middle between the two regions in terms of wealth. A shift in identity between the North Africans as African towards their religious and cultural identity as Arabic-speaking Muslims would dramatically shift geopolitics in the area, especially with potentially explosive Middle Eastern powder kegs (like the goal of regime change in Syria or the acceptance of a Palestinian state). But in the midst of such obvious problems, it is useful to pay attention to the smaller and less obvious signs as well, because they often signal deeper and longer-term trends. In this case the trend looks like the further marginalization of Africa and its continued political impotence and the increased influence of the Arab League, with a greater religious component to its political nature.