Death, Debt, and Politics in Libya

Protests in Libya
Protests in Libya

The madness in Libya has escalated beyond the level seen in Egypt—even during its darkest hours, just prior to the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Recent counts of the dead in Egypt put the death toll from the uprising at well over 300.

Video of plain clothes police officers in Tahrir Square, clubbing demonstrators while mounted on horseback or riding camels, remain the indelible images of the regime's brutality — proof that Mubarak had little reservation about sending in goons to bust skulls when his regime was teetering on the brink of collapse.

But the horrors visited upon the Libyan people, engineered by Colonel Gaddafi and his regime, are of a different order of magnitude.

Quantification of suffering and oppression is a dangerous calculus, particularly when administered by journalists who are simply reading reports of the chaos from thousands of miles away. But the widespread accounts of civilians massacred—of the Libyan military firing on unarmed protestors — demands the distinction.

Perhaps more chilling are reports from Malta yesterday, which describe a level of militarization and brutality unseen in Cairo: Two Libyan fighter pilots defected to the tiny island nation after allegedly refusing regime orders to bomb their own people.

The distinction may have been best captured last night on CNN's AC-360 by Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who observed: "Hosni Mubarak was a dictator, we know that — but he was no psychopath. He left...This [Gaddafi] is a very different man."

(Ajami also tellingly drew a parallel to Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Shia, after the First Gulf War, as a metaphor for a "regime that is willing to use air power on its own citizens".)

In a similar vein, Libya's deputy ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Dabbashi used the word 'genocide', in an interview with The BBC, to describe Gaddafi's action against the Libyan people. It's difficult to stress the starling nature of that statement: A Libyan diplomat in New York describing the actions of the Libyan regime as genocide.

Yesterday, Joseph Cotterill reported in The Financial Times Alphaville on the ratings actions associated with the events in Libya—quoting a Fitch report:

"Fitch Ratings has downgraded Libya's Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) to 'BBB' from 'BBB+' and placed them both on Rating Watch Negative (RWN). The Short-term foreign currency IDR has also been downgraded to 'F3? from 'F2? and the Country Ceiling has been downgraded to 'BBB' from 'BBB+'…"

If that sounds bizarrely bland to you, there's more:

"Libya's credit profile balances substantial oil and financial wealth against fragile and idiosyncratic political institutions. Sizeable political risk is already incorporated into the rating. With no formal constitution in place, it has never been made clear how and to whom the Libyan leader—who holds no formal political office—would hand over power."

This despite the broadening chaos on the ground over the weekend.

(Note: The Fitch note points out "Libya is the only Fitch-rated sovereign that has no government debt.")

As Cotterill quite correctly observes: "There is no constitution, no plan for when Gaddafi goes— but Libya remains investment grade."

Simply surreal.

This slowness to react—which borders on being completely out of touch with reality—perhaps mirrors Secretary of State Clinton's oddly diluted response to the crisis.

Her {LINK} statement {LINK} read in part: "Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed. We are working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government."

The wholesale human rights abuses now being perpetrated against the people of Libya are on a scale we did not see in Egypt. Perhaps our country - and our media - have 'revolution fatigue' with the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps we've simply become numb to the gradations of horror.

But if the accounts in Libya prove true, in whole or in part, as it appears likely they will, the United States must take unequivocal diplomatic action.

Now is the time for the Obama administration to take a decisive leadership role in The UN Security Council and demand an end to the Gaddafi regime.


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