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Libya: The Challenges Ahead

Updated: November 12, 2011 5:18 pm

Since the killing of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi on October 20, countless Libyans, both in their own country and abroad, have been celebrating some sort of Diwali. Fireworks have been lighting up the skies of Tripoli and people continue dancing in the street. A 42-year-long dictatorship has come to an end. However, a note of caution is required before one cites the Libyan development as yet another example of the onward journey of democracy in the Arab world. Simply removing a dictator is not an automatic cure-all for a society long terrorised. All told, the eight-month-old civil war has not exactly concluded. The so-called National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s government-in-waiting, has been saying for months that the war against Gaddafi had to be “completely won” before the country could move on to the difficult task of building a new one, based on democratic norms.

With rare exceptions such as Spain, the Philippines and Chile, toppling a tyrant does not necessarily pave the way for a viable democracy. The validity of this theory has been reconfirmed with the ongoing-exposure of severe limitations of the so-called “Arab Springs”. If we go by recent Arab history, whenever any authoritarian ruler has been overthrown through street riots and violent demonstrations, the country concerned has come in the grip of fundamentalist forces. Look at what happened in Iran after the fall of Shah. Even Iraq, despite the presence of Americans there, is turning back towards the middle ages, thanks to the fundamentalist Shia leaders who now control the country after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Equally instructive is what happened in the Gaza Strip. Street protests against the then Palestine leadership of Yasser Arafat, coupled with American pressure, resulted in an election that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel said was a mistake. The fundamentalist extremist Hamas got 70 per cent of the vote, and quickly set to executing moderate Palestinians and firing rockets into Israel.

What has been happening in Egypt of late also fits into the above scenario. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which swore democratic pretensions, is now showing its true colour. For the first time in hundreds of years, Christians and their places of worship are coming under attacks. In any case, though Hosni Mubarak was ousted months ago, there are no signs of viable democracy in Egypt. Mubarak, who was essentially heading an authoritarian military regime, has been overthrown, but the country continues to be run by the military. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the military did not like Mubarak, its supreme leader, trying to appoint his son, a non-military man, as his successor. In other words, the military revolted against Mubarak’s dynastic plan. It then supported the demonstrators, with a clear goal that in the subsequent days, the people would give the military an opportunity to preserve its own interests. Now the military is tolerating the Muslim Brotherhood the same way the Pakistani generals cohabit with the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In other words, we cannot exactly say that a democratic revolution has taken place in Egypt.

The case of Libya is all the more complicated. The country, like Afghanistan, consists of many tribes and the erstwhile ruling tribe of Col. Gaddafi is still powerful compared to others. All the rebel-factions that comprise the NTC have their different agendas; their unity was sustained because all of them had a common enemy in Gaddafi. Now that Gaddafi is no more, the unity will depend on new imponderables and give and take. Even otherwise, the NTC itself has much to explain for its many omissions and commissions so far pertaining to violations of human rights. Amnesty International estimates that the NTC is holding more than 2,500 people—without charges—detainees who, NTC officials admit, often are beaten in order to extract confessions. Black Africans have been arrested en masse on the assumption that they were Gaddafi supporters. In fact, “justice versus reconciliation” will be a key challenge for Libya’s new authorities. The old divisions can re-assert themselves with a vengeance if people have the sense that the central authorities are not willing to look out for their interests and marginalising the tribes by not responding to them.

Secondly, there is a serious danger in the potential spread of conventional arms from Gaddafi’s multiple arsenals. According to Human Rights Watch, “Weapon proliferation out of Libya is potentially one of the largest we have ever documented—2003 Iraq pales in comparison—and so the risks are equally much more significant.” The Gaddafi regime is thought to have accumulated 20,000 portable surface-to-air missiles, many now missing. The probability of al-Qaeda being able to smuggle some of the stinger-like missiles out of Libya is probably pretty high. Libya may well turn out to be one big arms bazaar for the foreseeable future, unless the unaccounted for weapons are found and destroyed.

Thirdly, there is the oil-factor. As a recent BBC report suggested, getting the oil pumping again will be crucial to the economy and vital to rebuilding infrastructure destroyed in the war. This means disarming the militias roaming in remote desert areas and an end to NATO bombing, which made it too dangerous to transport oil along roads to the coast. Libya produced about 1.6m barrels of oil a day before the conflict. At present, daily output is about 430,000 barrels, with many, including two oil fields that used to account for a quarter of overall output, remaining abandoned.

For the foreign operators who return to start the immediate task of restoring oil sites looted and destroyed in the fighting, political and tribal rivalries are bound to be a worry in the future. And while staff directly employed by the oil firms may agree to return with a private security guarantee, it may not be so easy to attract the hundreds of thousands of foreign support workers who fled during the conflict. Many of those from West Africa have faced attacks and harassment from the anti-Gaddafi fighters who accused them of being mercenaries; they may be loath to return to work under a regime they consider racist.

All this does not imply that Libya can never become a genuine democracy. This Libyan revolution has been essentially homegrown, not dictated by foreign forces. In fact, Gaddafi, as such, had trouble-free relations with the Western world, including the United States, over the last few years. If the NATO did intervene in the civil war, it was because the Western capitals realised that by not going with the winds of change, they would miss the bus in Libya. Men and women there are simply determined to take their future in their own hands. They want to be represented and have a say in the way their country is governed. One is only pointing out that after removing Gaddafi, Libyans now face harder challenges of establishing a democratic and accountable government that brings about national reconciliation and good governance. Of course, here the role of the international community, particularly the NATO countries, in facilitating the formation of such a government and sustaining it is going to be crucial.

By Prakash Nanda

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