What Lies Ahead for Libya

By Lauren Meryl Willamson

The existence of heavily armed civilians, remaining supporters for the Gaddafi regime, and a political system in chaos make for a difficult road ahead as the National Transition Council (NTC) seeks to gain legitimacy and control in Libya. Chatham House’s 18 August 2011 report Libya: Policy Options for Transition examines possible solutions including calling for the return of the skilled diaspora, restoring services and supplies and diversifying Libya’s oil-dependent economy. When the Chatham House held this discussion on the transition options for Libya, it was apparent that Tripoli would be key. It was unclear then whether it would be a quick triumph for rebels or an extensive, bloody battle. Just six days after, Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli was seized. But what looked initially to be a speedy takeover, has exposed deeper challenges for the transition ahead.

While a search for the fugitive former leader continues, there are reports that certain groups, like the one million strong Warfalla tribe, refuse to negotiate with the NTC. Opposition forces have threatened to use heavy force on the Gaddafi strongholds of Sabha, Sirte and Bani Walid. Rebel tactics have been ruthless in many instances. Cutting supplies to Tripoli was an effective tactic against the enemy, but now providing access to cooking oil, clean water and power for locals must be a priority, or else the NTC will lose credibility. Of relevance is that many state assets are frozen, and releasing these assets to the NTC would give it more financial flexibility to ensure the needs of the people are met.

Dangling cash is not necessarily the answer to winning pro-Gaddafi hearts, either: on 28 September the NTC delivered US$16m to the bank in Sabha – but still resistance to the new regime lingers. The UN stated on 28 September that it cannot even get humanitarian aid into Sirte and Bani Walid, which further harms the reputation of the NTC, as the public will ultimately find the NTC at fault for hindering humanitarian assistance as they crack down on Gaddafi loyalists. At least the NTC has been generous enough to announce a two-day cease fire in Sirte to allow unarmed residents to flee, though by 3 October, the battle continued.

The fact that the NTC has a clear transitional process outlined, including the establishment of a permanent constitution in 19 months and the election of a national council in seven months, bodes well for Libya transitioning into a post-conflict state. Yet despite the most organized framework, when conditions on the ground are so volatile, it necessitates a flexible approach. Flexibility is difficult for bureaucracies to achieve – particularly while upholding democratic values, and the slower its response, the faster the NTC will lose legitimacy.

Libya is not alone in its transition from an authoritarian to civilian regime. The report offers some comparison analyses, which suggest Libya will not experience an “Iraq scenario” with the fracturing of various sects and ethnicities as Libya is more homogenous. However, while Egypt and Tunisia have had national armies to secure the domestic sphere, the Libyan military has been entrenched in the Gaddafi regime. It is necessary for Libya’s police forces to close the security gap. A promising point made is that the police are seen as “fairly well respected and uncorrupt, and are generally seen as recoverable". But imposing unfamiliar roles and responsibilities on the police must be considered with great caution, as executing new operations while maintaining their positive image among civilians will require careful handling.

Additionally, the police cannot assume increased protections over a population inundated with weapons. The existence of heavily armed civilians poses a threat to police legitimacy and safety; this scenario limits what police can and cannot achieve in its operations. Even if there is a financial incentive for civilians to return weapons, the Libyan people cannot be expected to give up their arms until they feel there is sufficient security. The personal power Libyans give up in relinquishing their arms must be offset by the increase in personal liberty gained via direct involvement with the new government. 

Another option discussed in the Chatham House report is establishing a truth and reconciliation council, similar to the one created during South Africa’s post-apartheid era. The UN is nominated as the leader for such an endeavour. A better option, however, would be to involve South African experts directly, taking a distinctly “African approach” to Libya’s problem, thus guaranteeing a warmer reception by Libyans. The UN is not so highly regarded by the large Libyan populations still loyal to the Gadaffi regime, and the UN’s direct intervention should be limited.

Assuming NTC control is established quickly throughout the remaining Gaddafi strongholds, the economy must be the next priority. Two-thirds of Libya’s economy previously relied on the oil and gas industry, employing a small fraction of the population – roughly 43,000 people. A further blow to local Libyans is that this sector has also relied heavily on foreign expertise. The return of foreign expatriates will be necessary in the transition, the report argues. But the discussion fell short of looking at training programmes to limit the reliance on expatriate expertise and enhance the skills of local labour.

In the longer term, though, oil cannot continue to be the backbone of Libya’s economy. Economic diversification is necessary in order to create more employment. But first securing a stable country is essential to encourage businesses to grow and to put money into the pockets of civilians so they may become consumers of goods and services. The greatest challenge after securing the domestic sphere will be creating the demand that can support the supply side of economic diversification.

But who will be the business leaders in the new Liyba? Most Libyans with the education and finances to flee did so when Libya’s unrest first began in February. Discussion participants felt strongly that the NTC should request the return of the skilled diaspora community. However, finding incentives for their return is tricky. This is where Western governments can step in. An Associated Press article dated 4 September details the hopes and aspirations of the UK’s largest Libyan diapora community in Manchester. UK representatives must encourage and channel this interest, lend expertise in the development of plans and provide financial support for business development using these essential, highly-skilled Libyans.

Again, until these transitional goals can be achieved, the focus remains on the front lines in Libya where rebels continue to fight for control of the rest of the country. While Libya’s opposition forces want loyalists to renounce support of Gaddafi, it will take much more than raising a rebel flag for Libya to usher in the envisioned post-conflict era.


3 October 2011 


This article has been modified from the original version first published by The Majalla.


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Photo Credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori