Planning for Libya 2.0

Make no mistake: Qaddafi will be ousted, and probably sooner rather than later. That's why the hard work of rebuilding Libya must start now.


Finally, it seems that Libya’s rebels have momentum on their side: They have pushed back Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces on multiple fronts and are poised to encircle the capital of Tripoli. Libyans, and the entire world, will no doubt cheer the country’s liberation, but it’s not time to celebrate yet. Even if Qaddafi falls sooner rather than later, the immediate post-war period will still pose serious risks to both Libyans and the international community.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. A botched transition to a new regime could imperil the security and welfare in a post-Qaddafi Libya, discredit the NATO intervention, provide hfaven to international terrorists, lead to a new dictatorship, and even break up the country. We know from the experience in Iraq how costly a poorly planned transition can be.

The most pressing requirement will be reestablishing security. There’s no sign as of yet that Qaddafi intends to go quietly. On Aug. 15, he implored his supporters to "pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO." Even if the regime collapses, remnants of his armed forces may take these words to heart. Tripoli presents the greatest challenge. While liberated areas in other parts of the country have stabilized quickly as Qaddafi’s forces and sympathizers fled, there is no guarantee that the same will hold true for the capital. Many regime supporters and mercenaries have gathered there, and could mount the kind of "stay-behind" operation that brought chaos to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Security cannot be maintained for long without at least a rudimentary system for police, courts, and incarceration. These new institutions will be forced to grapple with internecine warfare among rebel or tribal factions, revenge killings, and criminal gangs. The Qaddafi-era institutions may suffice in the immediate post-war period, but thorough reforms will be needed if the rule of law is to be established on a more permanent basis.

Humanitarian requirements are also likely to be acute in Tripoli as well as other newly liberated population centers. Even in liberated areas, casualties and humanitarian requirements have not yet been fully assessed. Electricity outages are already reportedly severe in Tripoli, while Misrata has been in need of food shipments. Following Qaddafi’s fall, it will be vital to quickly restore basic services to these neighborhoods. Providing food, water, shelter, and health care for the most vulnerable — including what may amount to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people — will also be key. An angry citizenry does not make for a smooth transition.

Kickstarting Libya’s economy will require getting its energy production and exports back online as quickly as possible. But it is not just a matter of getting the oil and gas flowing: A more transparent and accountable system for spending the resulting revenue, much of which used to disappear into Qaddafi family accounts, will be needed to help forestall quarrels over the proceeds and set the country on a more sustainable path. The post-Qaddafi regime will need to do a full accounting of its assets and try to ensure that some of them are not "privatized" by officials seeking to line their pockets.

Establishing transparent, accountable, and inclusive institutions of governance will be the responsibility of the Transitional National Council (TNC), which has now received diplomatic recognition from the United States as well as much of Europe and the Arab world. This will be key to determining Libya’s political future. The TNC’s inclinations are clearly in the democratic direction, but it has been rent by factionalism and disorganization. The killing of the rebel military chief Abdel Fatah Younes by what appears to be a dissident faction within the rebel ranks is only the most visible example of this internal chaos. In order to maintain its claim to legitimacy, the new government will need to swiftly incorporate new people from recently liberated areas and heal long-standing tribal and minority wounds.

The TNC should consider including officials formerly belonging to Qaddafi’s army and security services, who otherwise may try to spoil the transition. Just as de-Baathification harmed international efforts to construct a stable government in Iraq, premature de-Qaddafiization could create more problems than it solves. On the institutional level, it needs to lay out a roadmap for preparing a constitution, organizing national and local elections, and convening a parliament. This is a tall order for a government that recently disbanded its executive committee in the wake of Younes’s murder. Even in Egypt, where a solidly unified military remains in charge, the timing and order of these political events has posed knotty issues.

The international community has a role to play in this transition as well. It must lend its help to Libyans in overcoming the many challenges that they will face. The process should begin at the United Nations, where the coordinated effort to protect Libya’s civilians first began. A Security Council resolution could affirm that Libya should remain a single country, should be able to sustain and defend itself, should be committed to using the wealth of its natural resources in an equal and beneficial manner, and should be governed by inclusive institutions that respect the will of all its people and their human rights. This kind of internationally supported transition framing will help to ensure common purpose and coordination among the dozens of governments and hundreds of organizations likely to become involved, some of which are already providing assistance in liberated areas.

The United Nations, which authorized the NATO intervention, has both the funding and the credibility with Libyans to play a leadership role in the transition. From Washington’s perspective — which is no doubt to avoid getting embroiled in more nation building — it is also a relatively economical way to get things done, as the United States usually pays no more than one-third of the U.N. costs.

The European Union also has serious capabilities — in particular, the ability to deploy hundreds of paramilitary police needed to stabilize a city like Tripoli — which will likely need to be brought to bear. Several important European Union members, such as Italy, France, and Germany receive oil and gas supplies from Libya or have invested in Libyan energy production, and therefore have a vested interest in seeing the country manage its transition effectively. Europe, however, is preoccupied with its own financial difficulties. Libyan assets frozen in the United States and Europe will eventually provide ample financing, but wealthy Arab oil producers may be needed to meet Libya’s most immediate requirements.

The United Nations and the European Union should lead in assisting the Libya transition, but that does not exempt the United States from contributing. American logistics and intelligence have been vital to the NATO military operation and will likely also be crucial in the post-Qaddafi period. The United States is not completely devoid of interests in Libya, after all — it does not want sensitive materials from Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs to get loose, for known terrorists to seek haven there, or for any Stinger-type anti-aircraft weapons to escape into the world arms markets. The United States will also want to make sure that NATO is prepared to step in if chaos threatens to break up Libya, re-install a dictator, or unleash a humanitarian crisis across North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Libyans have much to look forward to celebrating after a long and difficult conflict. But the really difficult challenges still lie ahead. The more we think through the challenges and prepare for them now, the easier it will be to meet the requirements later.

Daniel Serwer is a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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