Can Libya Win the Peace?

With Qaddafi gone, Libyans are living their hopes, not their fears.


BENGHAZI, Libya – The sudden collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime to militia columns from the western mountains and insurgent sleeper cells inside Tripoli has set off a night of celebration here in the rebels’ capital in eastern Libya. But what comes after the jubilation dies down?

Much has been written about the difficulty that the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) may have consolidating control over a post-Qaddafi Libya and the likelihood of splits — possibly bloody ones –between the different factions of the rebel movement.

The fears are legitimate, but the situation is not quite as dangerous as some might believe. Here in Benghazi, the rebel government had a fairly easy time establishing its authority in February and March, thanks largely to a regionwide sense of neglect and persecution by the Qaddafi regime. The NTC was quickly recognized by Benghazi residents and other easterners as a legitimate government, and it also earned their respect by getting competent people into position to ensure that electricity was generated, gasoline was available at the pump, and stores were stocked with food.

But it’s easy to be complacent in quiet Benghazi. Here and elsewhere, there are real concerns about post-Qaddafi stability.

First, among the rebels, there are lots of privately organized militias, or kitaeb — 40-plus at last count. They are composed of mostly unpaid volunteers, usually from one particular town or region. The nucleus of one of the largest, Benghazi’s 17 February Martyrs brigade, is a computer company. Several hours of tracer fire over Benghazi’s skies last night, Aug. 21, bore witness to how many weapons are in private hands, and how much people like to fire them. They are bound together by group solidarity engendered by the fighting of some pretty hard battles, and though right now they say they just want to get rid of Qaddafi, rebel forces also frequently develop a strong sense of entitlement.

The July 28 assassination of rebel commander Abdel Fattah Younes, apparently by katiba fighters with a personal grievance against him, has caused something of a backlash against katiba autonomy, and most militiamen in the east at least insist that they will either return to their jobs or join a new Libyan army. In the west, however, there appears to be some resentment against the Benghazi-based NTC for allegedly failing to give rebel bands there sufficient support.

Second, Qaddafi still has a base of support, or — just as dangerously — groups that will be perceived by the victorious rebels as bases of support. The NTC has tried to include as many different tribes as possible, and some of the larger groups allied to Qaddafi, like the Warfalla, are big enough that the perception of regime ties will simply be diluted by their numbers. It’s going to be very difficult, however, to make the members of the colonel’s own tribe, the Qaddafa, feel like they are full partners in the new Libya. The Qaddafa dominate the highly inconveniently located town of Sirte, which blocks the main east-west highway, and also share control over the oasis town of Sabha to the south. Sabha is a particularly dangerous spot because there was an uprising in June by the Awlad Suleiman tribe against the Qaddafa, and when two groups live in extremely close proximity and think each other a mutual threat, some very nasty violence can result.

Third, thanks to Qaddafi’s obsession with a facade of direct democracy, Libya has no experience of party politics and competing interests. The NTC is a rather lawyerly bunch that often seems to lack political acumen. It engendered a lot of criticism last week for announcing an interim constitution, supposedly without proper consultation. Rebel officials argued that they needed to get a document out to be fully recognized by the United Nations and to get a hold of Qaddafi’s frozen funds, but some saw the move as a complicated power play by NTC Deputy Chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, who had announced the document.

Another danger is that as soon as the revolutionary euphoria wears off, inevitably people will start imagining that the remnants of the old regime have just gone underground and are plotting a comeback, cutting nefarious deals with the NTC to remain in power. One or two mysterious bombs or assassinations could easily spark a panic, and the next thing you know you’ll have katibas demanding that they retain their arms to "safeguard the revolution." There’s no way that NTC leaders can stop this, but they should be careful to be as inclusive and as transparent as possible.

Now, a few points in Libya’s favor:

The combination of foreign airstrikes — which rebels realize saved them — and no external ground troops gives the West leverage without creating a backlash. Foreign interference is not a dirty word here: One katiba member I met in Ajdabiya said that the first thing he wanted to do after victory was buy a sheep and bring it to Paris to slaughter in French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s honor. This means that ideas like bringing in the United Nations to help with the transitional process, as some Libyan politicians have proposed, are probably going to be broadly acceptable. Also, when NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil calls upon Libyans to "prove to the world that we are a moderate Islamic nation that respects human rights and humanity" by not looting or taking reprisals, his logic is actually appreciated by fighters on the ground.

Moreover, Libya has no ruling party like the Baath. In Iraq, you had to join the party to rise high in your career, and to some degree the entire middle class was tainted by association with the Baath Party. This meant that after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, technocrats got turfed out of their jobs by religious Shiite parties, and in some cases terrorized by radical Shiite militias. In Libya, the NTC has been fairly successful in keeping professionals in their posts, and only a few organizations — i.e., Qaddafi’s "Revolutionary Committees," whose members’ primary responsibility was to keep tabs on their neighbors — are really tainted by their relationship to the regime.

The best news of all is that there seem to be few divisive differences over the identity of the country. Libya is tribally and ethnically diverse, but almost entirely Sunni and socially conservative. Some observers are worried about the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels. But these fears are probably overblown. To whip up radical Islamist populism, it really helps to have some kind of Other — be they crony capitalists, nefarious secularists who want to sneakily impose atheism through supraconstitutional principles, Baathists, Shiites, or others who practice scandalous or heretical rituals. There aren’t any of these in Libya, yet. There also aren’t any liquor stores to smash. Maybe this will change if a militant Berber movement emerges or if luxury hotels start going up in which an ex-NTC member has a silent partner.

Until then, however, most Libyans seem to be projecting their hopes onto the post-Qaddafi order, rather than their fears.

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