Advancing a Free Society

Will Libya Be A Disaster Without Gadhafi?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

First, to state the obvious: Libya was a disaster with Gadhafi.  His brutal and erratic governance terrorized the people of Libya.  Whatever may come now in Libya, it is difficult to imagine average Libyans becoming nostalgic for the era of the arbitrary and rapacious Gadhafi clan.  Still, Libya faces considerable difficulties transitioning, and it is by no means clear that what comes next will not bring disappointments and even terrors of its own.

This is a country that ought to be prosperous but is not.  Or, at least, that prosperity has not been experienced by the vast majority of Libyan people.  Extraction economies -- those that depend on oil or mineral wealth -- have lower rates of economic growth and higher rates of corruption and despotism than more diversified economies.  But the challenge in Libya isn’t principally an economic challenge, it is a political challenge.

Libya is emerging from forty years of dictatorship; as Iraq and other transitioning societies demonstrate, the lingering shadows from that experience inhibit individual initiative and the formation of civil society, both essential elements of democratic societies.

The Transitional National Council is less national than portrayed, comprised as it is mostly of civic leaders from Benghazi.  Bringing in representatives from Misurata and the western mountains (whose troops are principally responsible for the fall of Tripoli) will likely prove difficult in a country where tribal conflicts have been exploited for four decades.

Gadhafi’s strategy for controlling Libya implicated a wide swath of Libyans that could now be subject to reprisals.  And there is the troubling fact that so many al Qaeda operatives have Libyan origin; radicalization is a real threat.  At a minimum, the reconciliation process will likely be protracted as the new political leaders sift through complicity and deal with rejectionists.

Moreover, Libya may remain violent if regime elements refuse to accept the new political order or if forces that united to overthrow Gadhafi cannot find the basis for political cooperation.  Insurgency by elements who have lost power is nightmarishly clear from Iraq, but it is too soon to tell whether they will emerge in Libya.  That the International Criminal Court indicted Gadhafi for war crimes will make him and his supporters less likely to flee the country, even when it is no longer under their control, which could aggravate the problems of stabilizing Libya.

The second potential source of violence is among the victors.  Divisions among the revolutionaries are already evident.  The rebel military commander was assassinated by his own troops last week.  Military “units” in Tripoli are not under unified command, demonstrating the limits of cooperation among rebel factions.  The head of the Transitional National Council threatened to resign if rebels engage in looting or revenge attacks -- that he went to such an extreme suggests significant concern by the political leadership about control of their forces.

But it also suggests that Libya’s new leaders understand how carefully the outside world is watching their choices.  And they are making sound choices.  It is significant that Benghazi has been quiet and orderly since the rebels took control of it four months ago.  The Transitional National Council quickly organized resumption of public services and the population reacted with support for the fledgling government.  It is also significant that with the understandable exception of the Gadhafi compound there has not been widespread looting in cities as they fell to rebel forces.

The Transitional National Council has made mistakes (such as publicizing capture of Gadhafi’s heir who was still freely roaming Tripoli) but they are not major misjudgments and many can be explained by the confusion of rapidly changing circumstances.   They advocate Gadhafi’s capture and have stated they will try him in country rather than send him to the ICC, a choice that shows confidence in the rule of law.  They have reacted mildly when NATO military operations were not all they hoped for and frozen funds were not quickly released. They are moving quickly to consolidate support among states that most assisted their success, such as Turkey, France, and Qatar.  These show sophistication and restraint often absent in leaders thrown into power by rebellion.

In the main, Libya’s new leaders are remarkably well attuned to the challenges they’re facing and navigating this transition in ways that will build domestic and international support for their cause.  The democratic government in Libya may founder -- as hopeful revolutionary movements often do -- but they are off to a solid start, and they deserve our help.

(photo credit: BRQ Network)