This article was first published in New Matilda on 23/08/11, with revisions: http://bit.ly/AfterGaddafi
The regime of Colonel Muammur Gaddafi is in a state of near total atrophy. Rebel forces, pushing east from the recently captured town of Zawiya, have now entered Tripoli in force. They claim to have captured eighty percent of the city already, including the highly symbolic Green Square, and one of the largest military bases, Mais, where they freed nearly 5000 people and opened the armoury to rebel supporters. Rebel forces are now closing in on Tripoli on all fronts, with reports of troops arriving by boat as well.
Gaddafi has reiterated his claim that he will fight “to the last drop of blood”, yet rumours abound of his intended flight to Tunisia. His spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed that “we have thousands of professional soldiers and thousands of volunteers protecting the city.” Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who has been indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, has been captured and detained. There have also been reports that Gaddafi’s eldest son, Mohammad, has surrendered along with the presidential guard, though fighting continues at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. (The two preceding reports were both later disproved). Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown; in recent months he has been sleeping in hospitals and hotels to avoid air-raids. Whether Colonel Gaddafi decides to stay or flee and whether his loyalist forces put up a staunch defence will determine how this destructive and deadly civil war is concluded.
World leaders have intensified their calls for Gaddafi to step down and avoid further bloodshed. In a statement released yesterday, Nato urged those still fighting for Gaddafi’s regime to lay down their arms. Despite real concerns about the possibility of ongoing urban warfare in Tripoli and fighting elsewhere in Libya, the real question now is what happens after Gaddafi. What sort of process will emerge and who will the major players be?
In recent weeks in particular, the rebels and their representative body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), have come under much greater scrutiny as commentators turn their attention to post-Gaddafi Libya. The NTC’s ability to control the chaos that will continue to prevail for some time after Gaddafi’s removal is as yet untested. They are currently without a cabinet, after NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil sacked the last one for its failure to investigate adequately the murder of General Younes. Divisions within the NTC have stymied attempts to form a new cabinet and the NTC’s legitimacy as a representative body has suffered. The rebels in Misrata, who have been highly critical both of Jalil and the NTC’s designated army commanders, stated that they have not been taking orders from the NTC. Indeed, it is the rebels in the west and not those based in Benghazi who so recently broke the stalemate, captured Zlitan, Garyan and Zawiya and advanced on Tripoli. There are certainly no guarantees that those western rebels will be willing to accept directions from Jalil and his associates.
Nato has announced its readiness to work with the NTC to ensure that “the transition is smooth and inclusive, that the country stays united, and that the future is founded on reconciliation and respect for human rights.” Despite its relatively high regard amongst those opposed to Gaddafi, Nato’s ongoing presence in Libya may, in the long term, serve to create tension and resentment and leave the door open to further accusations of imperialism. As soon as the fighting stops, they will do well to disengage militarily to avoid further complicating what will be a very difficult transition to a new constitution and government.
The recent assassination of rebel general Younes also raised significant concerns about the possible influence of Islamic extremists within the NTC, though most commentators agree that this influence has been exaggerated and overplayed. Inevitably there will be an Islamic element within the political equation. There are already strict Muslims in the NTC, though this should be no more alarming than the presence of devout Christians in the United States government. They are not advocating an Islamic state, but a secular one.
The chances of an Islamic state emerging in Libya are slim. For all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses under the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya has long maintained a relatively liberal attitude toward personal freedoms. This is especially noticeable with regard to the situation of women. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women not only dress in western-style clothing, but have been very active and visible in the workplace. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984. The people of Libya, though denied freedom of speech, especially in the realm of politics, are well-educated and have good long-term employment prospects should the political and economic situation stabilise. It is not a country known for Islamic conservatism and it is unlikely that the revolutionary zeal which began as a demand for democracy, would transform into religious zeal, though this is by no means impossible.
It needs to be remembered that the NTC is merely a transitional body. Despite significant difficulties, it has managed to present a surprisingly united front throughout the conflict. It must soon look to hand over its responsibilities to a more broadly representative body tasked with the implementation of a constitutional process. How successfully this can achieved will hinge on a number of factors, such as whether or not there will be an ongoing insurrection and whether or not reprisals will continue between different groups. Much is often made of tribal rivalries in Libya and loyalties in Libya, as is indeed the case throughout the African polity, yet the tribes have managed to work together in the past and sustained an overarching Libyan national identity. No doubt there will be disputes and discontent, sporadic clashes and political violence, but whether or not such possible tensions will prevent the process of building a new Libya from going forward is yet to be seen.
Despite the destructive nature of the conflict, much of Libya’s oil infrastructure has been unharmed. This will certainly facilitate a more rapid economic recovery, though it will likely be several months before sufficient social and economic stability return to allow full production. The transitional government in Libya will also face difficult decisions and temptations with regard to Gaddafi regime assets and funds likely to come into their hands. Nato’s intervention might ostensibly have been on humanitarian grounds, yet many voices have been critical of its member nations’ long-term ambitions with regard to Libya’s oil reserves.
Perhaps the most immediate concern for the present and in post-Gaddafi Libya will be ensuring the supply of basic services and food. Almost a million people have been displaced by this conflict, many of whom will soon begin to return home. These people will need water, electricity, food and, in many cases, housing. Libya’s wealth should be sufficient to cater for this, yet oversight and distribution must be rapid and efficient. There will also be questions over the detention and repatriation of the many foreign mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi. Whether their treatment is humane, along with that of Gaddafi’s political supporters, should be a serious concern for the international community.
This is indeed the end of the game for Gaddafi, but as in computer games, the boss fight is often the toughest. If he accepts defeat and surrenders or goes into exile, then hundreds of lives might be saved, just as thousands of others might have been saved had he not declared war on his people in the first place. After 42 years in control of Libya, Gaddafi must act fast to stop any further loss of life, for which he will remain, ultimately responsible.