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Libya After Gaddafi – The Spectator cover story

The question for Libyans, as they take their first momentous steps into the post-Gaddafi era, is whether they can now build a government and country worthy of their heroic struggle against one of the world’s worst tyrants.

For decades, conventional thinking about Arab nations, especially among the experts, argued that they were best ruled by ‘strongmen’, a western euphemism for pro-western dictators such as the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his former counterpart in Tunisia Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. According to this line of thought, Arabs don’t do democracy. They are too tribal and fractious for such enlightened politics. For western leaders, it has been a case of better the devil you know, and hang the consequences for the Arabs.

Yet the success in Libya, hard on the heels of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and those so far frustrated efforts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, suggests that Arabs from the Atlantic in the west to the Arabian Desert in the east are not willing to remain passive victims of dictatorships forever. We need to understand this new dynamic and support it. In the British media, however, there is a tendency to seek out the most pessimistic scenario, for Libya and the Arab world more widely.

Where Libyans talk of creating a new Dubai on the shores of the Mediterranean, sceptics mutter about another Somalia. Where optimists like the lavishly maned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy pay tribute to the extraordinary breadth of interests represented by the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, cynics spot al-Qa’eda moving in to capitalise on the instability and point to the emergence of Islamists in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia. Instead of hailing the council’s success at maintaining security, we are supposed to believe that the single assassination in Benghazi of rebel commander General Abdul Fattah Younes invalidates the entire Libyan campaign. It doesn’t.

When David Cameron took the lead in pushing for a no-fly zone back in February, the doom-mongers were already queuing up to denounce what they considered yet another Iraq or Afghanistan. As the campaign progressed, they were quick to detect a ‘stalemate’. The rebels were inevitably ‘divided’. Nato’s campaign, they argued, was ‘running into the sand’. The Italians wobbled, the French faltered (peace talks, anybody?), but London remained resolute. The prime minister maintains it was ‘necessary, legal and right’ to intervene in Libya. He’s been proved right.
Admiral James Stavridis, Nato’s head of Allied Command Operations, says that the key components of success were the legality provided by the UN Security Council mandate, Nato’s ability to draw on a sophisticated command and logistic structure in the Mediterranean, a shared burden of responsibility among the allies and realistic goals (establishing a no-fly zone, introducing an arms embargo and protecting civilians). To these could be added strong regional support against Gaddafi and an increasingly effective and emboldened opposition.

No one would be foolish enough, however, to suggest that it is ‘mission accomplished’ in Libya. Stavridis tells me that challenges abound: ‘The keys will be the new regime’s ability to establish coherent security and basic services, cope with the return of hundreds of thousands of Libyans now in refugee camps across the borders, avoid bloodshed and retribution, create governance along the lines suggested by the National Transitional Council — which include dates and benchmarks to full democracy and elections — and get the economy up and functioning, principally the energy sector.’

That is a tall order for any established government, let alone a transitional council. There is no question that the challenges facing Libyans after Gaddafi are monumental. After 42 years of monomaniacal rule, it would be perverse to think otherwise.
Pessimists will have plenty to cheer in the coming weeks and months. The age-old differences between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east will resurface from the very outset. Some politicians may prefer pistols to parliaments when vying for power or resolving a difference of opinion. Small tribes may feel disenfranchised by the larger, stronger ones. A predominantly command economy cannot be restructured overnight. Oil, that unrivalled lubricant of corruption, will test the mettle and integrity of Libya’s new leaders. It will also test to breaking point the patience of long-suffering Libyans, who have watched the Gaddafi clan plunder the national wealth for four decades.

Shukri Ghanem, the former oil minister, estimates it will take 18 months for Libya to get back to its pre-war level of oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day. That will be much too slow for all those Libyans who believe they have already waited long enough. A generation of Libyan leaders unaccustomed to addressing their fellow citizens will urgently need to communicate the scale of the challenges facing the country. Chaos is likely to loom on the sidelines. As Ronald Bruce St John writes in Libya: From Colony to Independence, after four decades spent studying the country, the post-Gaddafi era will be ‘a time of considerable tension and uncertainty, with numerous socioeconomic and political groups vying for power’.

So what reasons are there for cautious optimism? Well, so far the rebel leadership has barely put a foot wrong. With few resources, it has kept the peace across eastern Libya. The fact there has only been one high-level assassination to date is a remarkable success, not a telling indictment. Assisted by the UN, the UK and the US, the Council has drawn up a detailed stabilisation plan for the immediate post-Gaddafi era. More impressively, it has drafted a 37-point ‘constitutional declaration’ which, if enacted, moves Libya towards elections for a constitutional assembly within eight months. This body would appoint a transitional government, draft a constitution to be offered to Libyans for approval in a national referendum, and hold direct elections for a democratic government within 20 months. If, as is suggested, Jordan leads the international community’s transition to democracy team, with the West reduced to providing air cover, that is another encouraging sign. Fellow Arabs should make a better fist of it. No one wants another western boots-on-the-ground intervention.

So much for plans and political theory. What else of Libya and its people? If the rebels I met in my two recent visits to Libya are any guide, the omens are good. They were not vicious zealots or Islamists, but civilised and well-educated people intent on restoring peace and order as soon as they possibly could. Unlike Iraqis, who have been cutting each other’s heads off with gusto at least since the founding of Baghdad in 762, if not much longer, Libya is not riven by sectarian division. The tribes may have their tensions, but there is no Sunni-Shia split. As Guma al Gamaty, the UK co-ordinator for the rebel council, says, ‘We have no ethnic, religious or sectarian differences. We’re the most homogenous Arab society in the world.’ Libya’s Berbers might beg to differ, of course, but the point is well made.

Libyans have also been blessed with fortunate resources and geography. With even a half-decent government in place, the population of seven million should prosper from the black gold beneath the sand, 47 billion barrels of reserves and counting, together with 1.3 trillion cubic metres of gas. Given the immense oil reserves on one hand, and the tiny population on the other, the fact that a third of Gaddafi’s Libya has lived at or below the national poverty line shows the extent of his misrule.

Earlier this summer, I spoke to one businessman in Benghazi who told me, ‘I remember Sheikh Zayed of Dubai coming to Tripoli for an eye operation in 1978. He saw the city and said, “My God, I wish I could make Dubai like this.” Can you believe that?’
Since then Dubai has grown and developed, while Tripoli has stagnated. But now can Libya follow Dubai’s example? It might sound preposterous. There is no law which states that Libya must now descend into anarchy and civil war, nor is there any guarantee of freedom and democracy. Yet the chances of success here are higher than those in any other Arab country yet to take on its dictator. The truth, as every Libyan knows, is that the opportunity is theirs for the taking.