Libya: What Now?

24 August 2011

Libya: What Now?

By Gwynne Dyer

In war, the moral is to the physical as three to one, said Napoleon, and the Libyan rebels certainly demonstrated the truth of that. Gaddafi had more soldiers, they were better trained and much better armed, and they did not lack courage. But the rebels firmly believed that they were bound to win, and once Gaddafi’s troops also became infected with that belief their resistance collapsed.

However, Napoleon also said that God is on the side with the best artillery, and the rebels had nothing bigger than light anti-aircraft guns. Their real artillery was the NATO air forces that conducted a five-month bombing campaign on their behalf.

Even though there are technically no foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, this heavy reliance on foreign military support makes the rebels forces beholden to the West in the eyes of some Libyans and many other Arabs. So they are, but as the leaders of the revolution try to make the tricky transition from dictatorship and civil war to an open and democratic country, the influence of the foreigners may prove useful.

Consider the tasks that the revolutionaries now face. First, the rebel leaders must prevent their victorious troops from taking revenge on the regime’s erstwhile supporters. The last thing they need is a bloodbath in Tripoli or anywhere else.

Then they must choose some thousands of today’s ragtag fighters to serve as a conventional and disband the rest of the militia forces that sprang up to fight Gaddafi’s army. A lot of people who fought for the revolution are going to feel cheated, and they still have guns.

The revolutionaries must then find a way of dealing with Gaddafi (if and when they catch him) that does not deepen the already grave divisions in Libyan society. Many people from Gaddafi’s tribe and its allies fought for the regime, and half the families in the country include someone who worked for Gaddafi’s government at some point during his 43-year rule.

Then they have to write a constitution, hold a free election, and form a legitimate government to which the National Transitional Council (NTC) will hand over all its powers. They also have to restart the economy and get money into people’s hands as quickly as possible. Many Libyans have not been paid for four months now.

That task will be a lot easier if the country’s foreign currency reserves, much of which are held abroad in accounts that were frozen by the United Nations during the conflict in order to cut off Gaddafi’s cash flow, are now released rapidly to the new Libyan government. It will also want to borrow a lot of money abroad to repair the oil facilities that were damaged in the fighting and get exports moving again.

That money will almost certainly be made available, because Libya has enough oil reserves to repay it tenfold, if necessary. But then the going gets harder.

Many people in the rebel leadership understand that the country’s strong tribal loyalties are divisive, but keeping them out of democratic politics is not going to be easy. It’s especially hard because there are no powerful civic organisations (professional associations, trade unions, etc.) to serve as an alternate focus for political activity.

Moreover, the revolution succeeded early in the east (Cyrenaica), while most of the west (Tripolitania) stayed under Gaddafi’s rule almost down to the end. So the NTC, which is only now moving from Benghazi in the east to Tripoli in the west, has a strong eastern bias. Yet the west has two-thirds of the population, and it was the fighters in the west who carried the main burden of the fighting.

Libyan society was atomised under Gaddafi, quite deliberately, in order to make each individual isolated and powerless when dealing with the regime. Now all those horizontal links that are collectively known as “civil society” must be recreated, without allowing tribal and regional loyalties to take over. Which is why the fact that the revolution has powerful foreign supporters could be useful to Libya.

Britain and France, in particular, have committed a great deal of political capital to the success of the Libyan revolution. They carried out more than half of the air strikes in support of the rebels, while other European democracies and Canada, all NATO members, did the rest. (The United States only contributed surveillance capabilities and occasional Predator drone strikes after the first few weeks.)

These European allies need to justify their intervention to their own people, so they will do everything in their power to make sure that there are no massacres, that Gaddafi and his close allies, when caught, are handed over to the International Criminal Court for trial (much better for the stability of the country than trying him in Libya), and that the process of building a democratic government in Libya goes as smoothly as possible.

They have a great deal of leverage over the rebel forces at the moment, and they will use it to keep the revolution on the tracks. Despite all the obstacles to a smooth transition that Libya faces, the outcome here could be surprisingly positive.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The revolutionaries…rule”; and “Moreover…fighting”)