Tripoli’s Two Roads

April, 2011
By Sanaa Arora

Almost three weeks after UN Resolution 1973 was adopted by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya and take all “necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, the political and military conflict in Libya continues to be in a deadlock. The rebels have failed to make much strategic headway on the ground, with the battle for control of key towns such as Misrata and Brega still raging. At this moment, a rebellion march into Tripoli seems a long way off. The Benghazi based Transitional National Council has offered the Gaddafi government an immediate ceasefire and freezing of present battle lines; a call which has been rejected by the government. 

With Gaddafi and his loyalist forces promising to fight till the end, and the opposition failing to make or maintain any significant territorial gains, fears about a prolonged stalemate have deepened around the world.  The conference on Libya held in London on March 29, 2011, and attended by approximately 40 Foreign Ministers from mostly NATO member states and Arab League countries, failed to reach a consensus on whether the rebels should be armed by outside powers or whether Gaddafi should be offered a respectable exit strategy and immunity from international prosecution. 

There are indications that the Gaddafi regime maybe looking for an exit, despite public claims to the contrary. On April 4, 2011, the New York Times reported that two of Gaddafi’s sons, Seif and Said, are working on a transition plan to take over Libya from their father. The acting Foreign Minister of Libya is also visiting Greece, Turkey and Malta to negotiate talks towards political reforms and a NATO ceasefire, although the Libyan government has publicly stated that even with political reforms, Gaddafi would not relinquish power. These plans, if true, are unlikely to find much acceptance by the armed opposition, who have called for the entire family and regime of Gaddafi to step down, as evidenced by their demands that Gaddafi key aide defector Mussa Kussa should return to Libya and be prosecuted for his crimes. 

Barring an extraordinary breakthrough, the present impasse is likely to continue for a period of time. While efforts to resolve the current conflict are critical, it is also important to look ahead and understand the long term challenges facing Libya. Despite international beliefs to the contrary, simply removing Gaddafi from power is not going to be helpful for Libya. A short term strategy has already raised the possibility of a long drawn civil war, which could in the worst case scenario split up the country. Even if Gaddafi leaves or is removed, there are underlying factors which will act as obstacles in Libya’s journey to transform into a democratic functioning state. 

The foremost challenge, as emphasized by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is that forty two years of Gaddafi rule have left the country with absolutely no effective state institutions, civil society, political groups or free media. Hence, institution and capacity building will be a mammoth task if and when the time does arrive. Building of efficient organizations across the spectrum of politics, governance, civil society and media will take many years and will require ground level support as well as sustained international assistance. Thus it is imperative that international support for Libya in the future does not stop at military, financial and political support, but equal priority is laid on development assistance which reinforces local capacity building. 

Another challenge which faces Libya is the fragmentation of the present anti-Gaddafi opposition, along ideological and sectarian lines. This was highlighted by Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, who has referred to the opposition as extremely disconnected and with very limited ability to govern the country, in face of a possible regime change. Furthermore, there is also a huge disconnect between the eastern province of Cyrenaica which is the rebellion stronghold with the north western Tripolitania province, where large parts of the population are still loyal to the Gaddafi regime. Any ideal long term solution will require the people of the eastern Cyrenaica province and western Tripolitania province to work together. This would require the new leadership to navigate through the complex tribal system, which has a long history of mutual distrust. Hence forging a common national identity and successful reintegration of Gaddafi supporters into a new societal system will be tricky but crucial. Any new government in Libya will have to be careful to not fall into an Iraq style situation, which is deeply divided and is still facing trouble forging a common identity.  

In addition to the above internal challenges, any new government will also have to face external perception challenges. A question which may raise its head in the future is a fear that a new government primarily represented by the present Transitional National Council could be a “puppet of the West”. This fear has found particular resonance with the African Union who has vehemently opposed outside intervention and refused to attend the conference on Libya in London. There are apprehensions that Libya’s vast oil and gold reserves could be manipulated by new leadership to favor current intervening powers, in exchange for their support in maintaining power and security, a scene which has played out in the past on the African continent. The African Union has so far played a marginal role in negotiations to resolve the conflict, though not necessarily out of choice. This is in contrast to the Arab League which has given its initial support to military intervention, with Qatar even offering to directly participate in enforcing the no-fly zone. 

Going ahead, it will be prudent to remember that Libya is an African nation as much as an Arab country. Any new Libyan leadership in the future will have to work towards developing ties with both African as well as Arab states. Assuaging any fears regarding its legitimacy, independence and self-determination could help boost regional cooperation. This will of course be made easier if the African Union is given a larger voice in present negotiations to resolve the conflict. 

Therefore there are two roads which will be important in the coming future. In the short term, it is the road into Tripoli, which at present looks dangerous, twisted and winding. In the long term, the second road is the path which the future Libyan government will itself adopt. Both paths are equally important and equally uncertain, but will chart out Libya’s future.

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