The Uncertain Future of Libya

Libyan rebel forces sit on seized weapons before leaving for Ras Lanuf, in Brega, eastern Libya, on March 5.

Even with a NATO-led no-fly zone imposed on Libya and CIA operatives assisting the untrained, leaderless rebel forces, the effort to remove Muammar Gaddafi looks as if it will be a prolonged one, and one that is by no means guaranteed of success. And if and when Gaddafi is ousted, the future of Libya is uncertain. A few possible outcomes are as follows.


The Gaddafi regime could survive with Libya effectively bifurcated into Libya Tripoli and Libya Benghazi. This scenario appears unlikely for many reasons. The key members of the international coalition (the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Italy) want a regime change in Libya. The tough talk from the March 29 London Summit on Libya is instructive, as it reemphasized the need for sweeping democratic reforms, a scenario unlikely in a Gaddafi regime. 

In addition, Libya is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, two countries that are still managing their own peaceful revolution. The powerful armies of these two countries are unlikely to accept a divided Libya, permanently engaged in civil war, with thousands of refugees streaming across their borders. Already the ongoing crisis is straining the border control capacities of both countries. The United Nations reports that more than 330,000 individuals have already left Libya and an additional 250,000 refugees and migrants face imminent displacement.

Furthermore, the Arab League in an unprecedented move, called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya from government troops. The African Union that had opposed foreign intervention in Libya in a March 25 meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia endorsed the idea of transitional government in Libya. The rebel movement as it becomes stronger militarily is also unlikely to accept anything less than a total capitulation of the regime in Tripoli.

Long-term occupation

If pro-Gaddafi and rebel forces fight to a standstill, a long-term occupation of Libya by the international coalition is not out of the question.This could involve an ongoing no-fly zone, special units on targeted missions deep inside Libya, or operations intended to safeguard oil production.

This scenario is highly unlikely, since U.N. Resolution 1973 explicitly forbids foreign occupation, and political/economic support for the foreign occupation of Libya is unlikely in key international coalition countries. In addition, Libya is a graveyard of foreign occupation forces. In particular, Turkey, Italy, France and the United Kingdom will be wary of occupation, based on past experiences of violent revolt by native tribes in present-day Libya. It is also important to note that the rebel movement has never requested assistance with foreign ground forces.

New democracy

Yet another unlikely outcome is a new democratic Libya built on a foundation of rule of law, respect for human rights and free markets. This is a country that has never known democracy. The nearly 42-year regime of Gaddafi stripped Libya of all democratic pretences and robbed the country of national institutions that can safeguard democracy. The Transitional Ruling Council of the rebel movement does not have validated democratic credentials, and key members were formerly part of Gaddafi's inner circle.

Experiences from recent attempts on population-based democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan show clearly that strong democratic roots take time to grow in an environment bred on autocracy and strong-arm leadership. Libya is no different.

A long, grueling road

What we are most likely to see is a Libya with an initial, opaque democracy with two powerful political blocks—rebel movement supporters and pro-Gaddafi supporters.Upon the end of theGaddafi regime, the rebel movement will take charge, with very little experience in governance. The rebel movement supporters will be brimming with enthusiasm for a new Libya, while pro-Gaddafi supporters will be more knowledgeable about how public institutions work and the levers of government.

The Gaddafi regime support base in Libya will likely survive his departure from office, just as the Sunni Triangle support base of Saddam Hussein of Iraq survived the overthrow of his government. There will be an initial few years whereby Libyans of all ethnic, religious and political hues must struggle together to build the foundations of democracy, including writing a new constitution, establishing independent legislative and judicial branches of government, and developing national institutions, including civil society entities to safeguard democracy. Libyans in the diaspora will also have important roles to play in the areas of education, healthcare and economic development. The reform of the military and the police will focus on professionalism and personal ethics.

Ironically, the process of democratic reforms in a future Libya will require a symbiotic partnership between rebel supporters and pro-Gaddafi supporters.

The implication of this scenario of initial, tepid democracy is that the international coalition will likely spend a lot more time in Libya than currently acknowledged to help launch democratic reforms.The international coalition will likely shift from enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to participating in a coordinated boots-on-the-ground strategy that inserts non-combat, technical and developmental assistance experts to work with the new government in Tripoli on democratic reforms.

The international coalition should avoid becoming entangled in efforts to control Libya's abundant natural resources. That is the role of Libyans. The international coalition should ensure that the mistakes made in Iraq—whereby membership in the then-ruling Baath Party were grounds for dismissal from the public service and military by the hands of U.S. forces, thereby fueling a deadly insurgency—do not happen in Libya.

Libya has a long road ahead in the next few years. It has the advantage of oil and other abundant resources, and a relatively small population of 6 million. With the support and vigilance of the international coalition, Libya has a fighting chance to remain a united country in the short term and to institutionalize deep-rooted democratic traditions in the long term.

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