Libya is in danger of becoming another Iran if the Obama administration fails to act quickly to support non-Islamist factors who led the country’s revolution, Middle East expert Walid Phares says.
The hard-line Islamists are just waiting to take over the country, and only the United States and its allies in NATO can prevent them, Phares says in an exclusive interview with Newsmax.TV.
“The Islamist network has its own propaganda, and the propaganda is not in the interests of having the image of the United States being defended and protected,” he said. “From the beginning of the process, we should have engaged with and partnered with the democracy forces, not with the fundamentalist forces.”
Phares was speaking on the day rebels and loyalists faced intense fighting for parts of Tripoli. Moammar Gadhafi's whereabouts were unknown. Three of the dictator’s sons were captured at one time, although two of them are no longer in the custody of rebel authorities.
On Tuesday, rebels said they held eastern parts of Tripoli, including Tajoura, two days after mounting an assault on the city. Loyalist forces are concentrated in the Hadba district and around Bab Azziya, Gadhafi's headquarters where NATO and rebels are attacking, according to reports.
One Gadhafi son and presumed heir, Saif al-Islam, who rebels said they arrested in the capital Aug. 21, appeared at a hotel in Tripoli and told the BBC that his father is safe. He said his father's forces had broken the “backbone of the rebels” and that they had fallen into “a trap” by moving into the city. Rebels said Saif poses no threat and downplayed his reappearance.
Phares, who is watching the volatile events carefully in Libya, says the country is in danger of falling under radical Islamist leadership if the United States doesn’t throw solid support behind secular forces.
“Look what happened in Egypt and look what happened in Tunisia. We entered very late in the game," he said.
“We know that the interim council has former bureaucrats, people who would like to build a pluralist democracy, but it also has a large contingent of Islamic militants, so one has to be very careful about how the transition will go about.”
Phares, the adviser to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the U.S.. House, said the chances of the Islamists ending up victorious are about even. “It’s a 50/50 possibility.
“The Islamist militias within the rebels are the most organized, widest network. The people we see on the streets, those thousands of young men . . . happy to see the departure of Gadhafi or at least his demise, are not those who have power. They will only have power in the future if they organize themselves into a political party if democracy or a democratic culture takes root in Libya.
“Waiting . . . is basically inviting the Islamists . . . to seize the revolt and turn it into another authoritarian regime.
“If the Islamist militias take over in Libya, then they are going to support their colleagues in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Gaza and in Syria, so it all depends on the near future of events in Libya. This is where we, the United States and the international community, will have to be swift, smart and strategic.”
Phares said the Islamist groups have proved to be the best equipped, organized and funded throughout this year’s Arab Spring and they are now setting the agenda in both Egypt and Tunisia, the other Middle East countries where the government has been overthrown.
He pointed out that, in Egypt, the revolution was led by “the youth, women, minorities, the Facebook people, liberal elements of society,” who were then joined by the middle classes and labor groups.
“But soon enough, the Muslim Brotherhood moved in,” said Phares, a Newsmax contributor and author of the book “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.”
“They are now leading politics in Egypt. The same could be said about other countries, it could be about Libya and Syria and Tunisia as well.
Phares said the Libyan revolution would not have succeeded without NATO and the United States, but now the war has been won, it is important for the west to win the peace as well. He said the Islamist factions will be keen to ensure that NATO’s role in their country is now at an end.
“The Islamist militias . . . were the ones who did not want to see [NATO] boots on the ground, because they know that if the international presence comes to Libya it will connect with Libya’s civil society, which is unarmed, and it will impose a disarming of militia.
“So the Islamist militia in Libya will make sure that NATO’s mission is over and that way they can move forward to grasp power.”
Phares said the new Libyan government’s top priority has to be disarming militia groups. Otherwise it could find itself fighting both the remnants of forces loyal to Gadhafi and to Islamists bent on seizing power for themselves.
“This is where the United States and the international community and the Arab moderates must put all the pressure they can on the new government to disarm the militia before they engage in the political process.”
Phares said the events in Libya over the past 48 hours will have been watched closely by other despots, such as Syria’s Bashir al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. He said they will see very clearly how a “dictator who fought his own people with weapons and tanks and planes ended up being defeated.