Libya: what now?

The rebels achieved what many thought would be impossible – but the road ahead for Libya remains fraught with dangers.

Tripoli protestors
Mustafa Abdel Jalil has sought to ease tensions within the Libyan National Transitional Council, but it is unclear how successful he has been [EPA]

There can be little doubt that the Gaddafi regime has ended. Its irredentist elements may fight on for a lost cause because they see no future under the new dispensation as it comes into being. The colonel himself may fulminate against a population that rejected his ideal of a perfect political system, thus revealing its own inability to measure up to his ambitions for it, and justifying his description of it as “rats”, worthy only of “flames and larva” throughout a devastated country.

Gaddafi may even escape capture, despite the indemnity and offer of $1.7m for him, dead or alive, and he will certainly reject the offer of immunity and safe passage provided he renounces all claim to power, made by the National Transitional Council as it prepares to move to Tripoli, to take over control of the revival of Libya after his four decades of dictatorship. But finished Gaddafi is, as is his regime, even if it will be a matter of months before the detritus of the past is cleared away.

So, what now? We know that the National Transitional Council in Benghazi has been planning for this moment for months. It has proposed a plan for the transition to a new kind of regime in which security will be guaranteed by maintaining the existing administrative system, army and police force with a policy dedicated to reconciliation, rather than revenge.

The plan also envisages that the Council itself should manage the process of selecting a transitional government, which will have the task of preparing a new constitution and arranging for it to be approved by referendum so that democratic elections can then take place. All of this is due to take place within the next six months, with the Council beginning to rule Libya in the next week or so. The measure of its success will be its own disappearance, its task completed, and its leading members have declared that they will seek no role in the Libya to come.

The problems

There are, however, some potential problems on the way. The most immediate is financial. Libya is an oil-rich state and survives only on the revenues that oil generates. When the civil war broke out, Libya’s assets abroad, estimated to be worth around $100bn, were frozen and an embargo was placed on its oil exports by the United Nations (UNSCR 1970: 2011). The Gaddafi regime is believed to have had a secret hoard of $150bn worth of gold ingots which it used for finding ways to evade the embargo, but its whereabouts are unknown.

The new government estimates it needs an immediate $5bn just to defray the costs of provisioning Tripoli, which has been starved of electricity, water, food and medicine for weeks past as the insurgent militias isolated it, as well as providing for the myriad communities devastated by the conflict and rehabilitating the damaged oil industry – which may take several years.

Western powers are anxious to unfreeze Libya’s assets as quickly as possible, and moves are already afoot at the United Nations Security Council to release $1.5bn from the United States and a further $1.3bn from Britain. After all, if they do not do this, then they will be expected to meet the bills!

But not everybody is so eager: South Africa, a non-permanent Security Council member, objected to the plans because, it said, this would implicitly pre-empt the right of African states to choose whether or not to recognise the new government. The South African objection also reflects its government’s irritation with the brusque dismissal by NATO and Western powers of its attempts to mediate a solution to the Libyan conflict as the representative of the African Union.

Arab commentators have worried that Western states and the international oil companies will use the funding issue as a stick to force Libya’s new rulers to bend to their neo-colonial bidding, although there is as yet absolutely no evidence of this, and the Council has made it clear that pre-existing contracts will be honored.

In fact, Western powers are acutely conscious that they face the danger of being accused of meddling, now that the acute phase of NATO’s intervention is coming to an end, and they have taken every precaution not to interfere while still making help available, if Libyans want it, for constructing a new political system. Liaisons exist between British and French teams in Benghazi on the one hand and the Council on the other. Both countries, furthermore, intend to operate through a United Nations Stabilisation Unit which was set up months ago and all intend to respect the expressed desire of Libya’s new masters to be in charge of their own fates. The European Union, too, will be available for advice and support, should the Council wish.

The real problems, however, lie within the new structures now emerging. The Council, for instance, despite its secret Tripoline members, is essentially a Cyrenaican creation and will have to work to persuade its Tripoline partners in Misrata and the Jabal Nafusa that they really do share the same objectives. The Berbers of the Jabal, for instance, are almost certain to want a federal state in which to express their sense of “Amizighté”. Reconciliation, as the Council has called for, is a highly desirable aim, but not all the militias agree and revenge killings have already taken place in the Jabal, sometimes on a tribal basis. And what will happen with the irredentist remnants of the Gaddafi regime that refuse to submit, prolonging the violence and destruction?

Then there is the question of the role to be played by former members of the regime. Given Libya’s dramatic lack of political and administrative experience (the legacy of the baleful perfection of the Jamahiriyah, which punished dissent with death or imprisonment), and the parallel lack of civil society (eliminated over the years for identical reasons), it is almost impossible for Libya to ignore the accumulated experience of the previous regime.

Indeed, Mr Abdel Jalil himself, as president of the Council, is Libya’s former minister of justice and the commander of the East’s military forces. General Younis, who was killed at the end of July, had been the interior minister. Yet General Younis’ death was almost certainly a consequence of a widespread dislike and suspicion of former members of the Gaddafi regime within the insurgent movement.

The issue also highlights the tensions within the Council between different groups: Exiles against former members of the regime, Islamist militias suspicious of the military command, and tensions between the armed forces of the East and those of the West of the country. Mr Abdel Jalil has battled against these trends, it is true, but it is not clear how successful he has been and how coherent and competent the Council will be in handling its new responsibilities. Nonetheless, there are still many question marks about the immediate future that pro-Gaddafi forces may seek to exploit if they manage to regroup.

The outlook

Yet against these concerns must be set the single staggering fact that, admittedly with NATO’s help but essentially with their own resources, Libya’s people have overthrown the regime that had oppressed them for decades. Unlike Tunisia, the regime was not capable of understanding its own loss of legitimacy and fought unsuccessfully to retain control. Unlike Egypt, there was no army as a national institution which, in the end, was prepared to force the regime to go. NATO’s help was vital in evening out the odds that the insurgents faced, but they were the ones who actually achieved what many thought at the beginning would be impossible.

It could be argued, therefore, that Libya, the country upon which its regional neighbors used to look with a pitying regret, perhaps even contempt, may turn out to be a paradigm of how liberty can and should be won against corrupting and violent dictatorship. In that respect, it finds its place alongside Tunisia as the unexpected and unanticipated examples of radical political change in the Arab world, in which it is North Africa that offers lessons to a Middle East that has been used to precisely the reverse!

Given that achievement, perhaps, the problems faced by the National Transitional Council can now be seen in a proper perspective.

George Joffe is a Research Fellow at the Centre and Visiting Professor of Geography at Kings College, London University. He specialises in the Middle East and North Africa and is currently engaged in a project studying connections between migrant communities and trans/national violence in Europe. He is also a lecturer on the Centre’s M.Phil. in International Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.